Creativity and Comics Thrive in Portland

Mon, July 23rd, 2007 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Chris Ullrich, Contributing Writer

When considering the world of comic books, graphic novels and the cities where they're created and published, a few obvious towns come to mind. New York City, a mecca of book and magazine publishing, as well as home of comic book industry giants Marvel and DC, is probably first on the list. Then perhaps San Francisco or Los Angeles would be next, as both are well-known, vibrant cities and home to great artists, writers and other supremely creative individuals. But there is another city where comic books and creativity are booming, where artists and writers are finding a home, where the spark of independence and drive to make something special often leads to works of brilliance and unique insight. What is this amazing place?

Portland, Oregon.

Home to a flourishing independent comic book community of writers and artists such as Brian Michael Bendis, Greg Rucka and Rick Remender, Portland is also home to three major comic book publishers: Top Shelf, Oni Press and Dark Horse Comics, the latter being the third largest publisher of comic books and graphic novels in the world. With so many creative and talented people and publishers assembled in one place, it begs the question: why Portland? Why has this liberal, somewhat sleepy Pacific Northwest town become over the last twenty-odd years a place where artists, writers, comic book creators and the comic book business not only survive, but prosper in a big way?

Artist/writer Rick Remender, whose creations include "Strange Girl", "Fear Agent" and the upcoming "Sorrow," is a somewhat recent addition to the roster of comic book writers and artists who've migrated to Portland, having moved from San Francisco. For Remender, the comics scene was certainly a very influential factor in his decision to relocate, but the creator also had more practical reasons for making the change.

"We moved to Portland because we could afford to live there," Remender told CBR News. "Now, instead of a small apartment, we have this giant four bedroom mansion. Economics played a big part in our decision to move. Plus, Portland is just a very livable city."

Of course, as a comic book writer and artist, it was a smart business decision for Remender move, especially given the strong comics community and the city sporting at least three major comic book publishers. "The comics scene is thriving in Portland," said Remender, "They've really set the town up for artists and writers. It's a progressive-minded town where they don't sacrifice ethics and values for success. I like that. Plus, proximity to publishers and your editor is a good thing," he added.

Steve Lieber, artist and co-creator of "Whiteout" with Greg Rucka (also a Portland area resident) and one of the creative forces behind the Periscope studio --an artists collective making its home in Portland's downtown-- agrees completely with Remender's assessment. "People are so creative here," Lieber told CBR News, "and that creativity is very encouraged by the city. We have so many great bookstores and access to creative people that you can't help but be inspired."

That inspiration was one of the major factors that helped Lieber and his cohorts at Periscope decide on Portland as the perfect home for their collaborative endeavor. "We wanted to get together with creative people who felt the same way we do and this city has a way of helping to make that happen. That's why we made our home here and started our studio here. It was a no-brainer," said Lieber.

Writers and artists, although a vital part of the Portland comics scene, are not the only ones who've found creative and financial rewards in the city. Comic book publishers such as Top Shelf, Oni Press and Dark Horse Comics, are headquartered in and around the city as well. In fact, many artists, writers and even other publishers in Portland say that without a company like Dark Horse and its founder Mike Richardson, the city probably would not have given rise to such a booming creative community or been able to support not one but three successful publishers.

"Dark Horse started in all," Oni Press Executive Editor Randall Jarrell told CBR News "Without them there probably wouldn't be a Portland comics scene, at least the way it is now with three major publishers all successful in their own ways."

For Dark Horse founder and publisher Mike Richardson, at least in the beginning, it wasn't necessarily about being a huge success or creating any kind of comics scene, it was just about the love of good comics. "We started Dark Horse because those were comics we wanted to read and it took off from there," Richardson told CBR News. "Our success led to others thinking Portland was a viable, creative alternative to a place like New York. It's not really a question of 'why Portland,' but more 'why not Portland?'"

Richardson, who started as a comic book retailer before building his publishing and film empire, characterizes Portland and its attraction to creatives as something largely intangible. "There's just something in the water that encourages writers and publishers to locate here," Richardson said. "It's a combination of a number of things. Certain environments are conducive to the creative process. Portland has just enough big city, but not too much and just enough small town but not too much. So you're sort of in a nice area and an area that inspires creativity."

Scott Allie, Dark Horse's Senior Editor of "Hellboy" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8," among other titles, is another transplant to the city. His background is somewhat different than Richardson's, given that when he first got to Portland, he started self-publishing his own comics -- in some cases copied at a local Kinko's-- and selling them at local festivals before he embarked on his highly successful career at Dark Horse. But even though Allie came to his current position along a slightly different path, his feelings on the Portland comics scene are very similar to Richardson and others, especially where Dark Horse's influence and contribution to the scene are concerned.

"A lot of people came here because Dark Horse was proof that you didn't have to be in New York to do comics," Allie told CBR News. "Portland provides a great environment to be creative."

In addition to artists, writers and publishers helping to foster the Portland creative community, other local events such as conventions and festivals are also a big factor in helping the community continue to grow and prosper. The Portland Comic Book Convention and the Stumptown Comic Fest, among other events, have contributed greatly to the comics scene. Stumptown in particular, although one of the newest events in the city, seems poised to contribute a great deal while still maintaining its independent roots the festival and city are known for. "Stumptown shows how independent the comics scene still is here in Portland, "said Allie.

Dark Horse Executive Editor Diana Schutz is also a big fan of local comics events, especially Stumptown. In her view, local festivals are very important to the continued growth of the Portland creative community, as well as being a great place to discover new talent. "Stumptown is great and part of the whole do-it-yourself movement here in Portland," Schutz told CBR News. "I get out to the convention every year and recently a woman came up to me to show me her work. I didn't hire her on the spot but almost. It's that personal contact and the opportunity to approach us someplace less crazy than San Diego Comic Con that makes these local events so important."

Allie agreed, saying, "When I get to go to the local events I see all the same people and we re-connect. All your friends are there and a lot of them work in comics so it makes me feel like part of a community."

Even though Portland has its indie spirit, there might still be another reason why the creative community continues to grow and prosper in the city: the weather. As with many Pacific Northwest towns, it tends to rain quite a bit in Portland. Not that the weather prevents people from working, playing or generally being outside, it just gives residents some added incentive and more time to spend indoors being creative.

"I think the weather plays a big factor," said Excalibur Comics proprietor Debbie Fagnant, whose family has been in the comics retail business in Portland for over twenty years. "Its one of the things that makes this town so literary. People are inside reading or writing or just creating. If the weather were nicer, people would probably be outside doing something else."

With comic books and graphic novels finding more mainstream success and acceptance every day, Portland's eclectic mix of artists, writers, editors and powerhouse publishers is sure to attract even more migrations to the city. Creative people are always looking for a nurturing place in which to express their ideas and Portland is in the view of such people a great placed to do so; a place where ideas rule, creativity is given a home and where anything is possible. It makes perfect sense, then, that the city is home to such a vibrant comics scene that will only continue to grow.

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