Comics: It’s Such a Big Small World

At the end of April I attended the Stumptown Comics Fest, which is Portland, Oregon’s creator-driven convention, now in its seventh year. As I was anticipating that trip, I could not help but notice that news and buzz for Comic-Con International in San Diego is already hitting my news feeds, even though the event was three months away.

While the two events are both, at some basic level, comics conventions with exhibitors, panel discussions, and signings, they also have important differences, and it is in those differences that Stumptown and Comic-Con help in outlining the state of comics culture in the US.

Douglas Wolk (Reading Comics, Da Capo Press, 2007) frequently divides comics readers into different tribes. Within his taxonomy, Comic-Con is the center of “The Wednesday People’s” universe. These are readers who avidly follow superhero comics, especially from the two major publishers. They are called the “Wednesday People” because Wednesday is the day new comic books are out in the US.

Stumptown, by contrast, caters to what Wolk calls “The ‘Mature Readers’” and, especially, “The Art-comics People”. The latter seek out works that delve into darker, ‘adult’ themes. Key creators include Warren Ellis and Neil Gaiman. The former value comics as a mode of artistic expression, favoring the kinds of books made by writers and artists such as the Hernandez Brothers and Joe Sacco (for a complete listing of Wolk’s tribes see, Sara Ryan, “PLA 2010: Librarians Get Graphic preconference notes”, 31 March 2010).

There are many creators who produce work that appeals to different tribes, and there is certainly room for all kinds of work, writers, and artists at both conventions, but in general, these are the lines that divide the two events. If you want to know what Marvel and DC have coming up, go to San Diego. If you want to sample independent work and talk to artists or small publishers and micro-presses, head for Portland.

What’s more interesting than how these events divide according to what kind of readers they appeal to, is where their trajectories have led.

Comic-Con, while still, at root, a comics convention, has become a trans-media event, an important touchstone for all things fannish, whether on film, TV, in video games, books, or comics. While it’s tempting to see this as a new phenomenon, the organization’s history shows an early interest in engaging with different fandoms (details at the well-sourced Wikipedia entry on the event’s history and organization).

Advantages to growing the convention beyond comics for economic and exposure purposes aside, the movement from a fan-based comics gathering to a broader popular culture festival has a certain logic to it. Comics readers not only, quite naturally, consume film and television, genre fiction, and play video games, but the use of these different forms often comes from similar places creatively and appeal to fans for similar reasons. There’s no particular reason why people who love, say, vampires, should, or do, limit themselves to one medium or another. Why not invite everyone to your party?

It is here, arguably, that of the key differences between Stumptown and Comic-Con is found: the bigger gathering is the fans party, while the smaller event is a creator’s shindig. If Comic-Con is driven by what fans want to see, Stumptown is driven by what artists and writers want to show, and that includes work that readers may not yet know they want to see because they haven’t had a chance to pick it up anywhere else.

With so much of the work at Stumptown being creator-owned and small press or self-published, virtually every exhibitor’s table is an opportunity to talk to an artist or publisher. It’s possible to leave the fest with every item you have in hand signed by the creator. To call Stumptown a creator’s party is not to suggest that it isn’t reader-friendly, but it does suggest that while Comic-Con can be seen as a big fan mixer, Stumptown is for creators as much as it is for comics fans.

Referring back to Wolk’s taxonomy of readers, Comic-Con is critical for The Wednesday People because it draws in producers of work with sizable fandoms. Many of the writers and artists at Stumptown have their fans, too, but not on the scale of the big superhero titles from DC and Marvel. Also, of course, there are those who do not yet have ‘fans’, and whose work may be such that it only ever connects to a small number of people. A convention like Stumptown is critically important to creators who make comics that are unique, idiosyncratic, and resistant to being mainstreamed. This makes it ideal for Mature Readers and Art-comics People.

The point here isn’t to counterpose one kind of convention against another, but to look at the events in terms of what they tell us about the breadth and diversity of American comics culture, and the different ways in which that breadth and diversity is nurtured. It’s too easy to draw absolute distinctions, particularly when the scale and media significance of the two events are so different.

For starters, at Stumptown, creators are also fans. One of the coolest things about attending is seeing people at each other’s tables, and many exhibitors with their own stack of books purchased from other artists at the fest. Some of this is professional interest, no doubt, but it’s also about celebrating work that they admire, too.

While Stumptown may not feature panels on the next superhero film or installment in a best-selling fantasy series, there are signs of media convergence, albeit in a smaller way than at Comic-Con. Non-comics zines and independent publishing resources are exhibited. This year I came across at least one small press prose novel. Many artists sell prints, posters, and pin-ups that are unrelated to comics. There is also no shortage of creators and a few publishers whose work crosses the distance between Comic-Con and Stumptown.

One reason why Portland is home to a convention like Stumptown is the concentration of creators and publishers who reside in or near the city. The local scene includes artists and writers, like Dylan Meconis (Bite Me, Family Man), who primarily make comics for themselves, publishing to the web, on their own, or through a micro-press. (Full disclosure: Meconis is an acquaintance of mine.) It also includes creators like Greg Rucka (Detective Comics, Queen and Country) who work for the major publishers, as well on work that they own and publish through smaller outlets like Oni Press, also based in Portland, as is Dark Horse, which, like Oni, puts out a range of books with appeal to different readers. Just as creators and publishers cross-boundaries between readers, there are readers with memberships in multiple tribes.

This year the mega pop world of Comic-Con and the independent art world of Stumptown will converge when a film adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Oni published Scott Pilgrim series starring Michael Cera (Arrested Development, Superbad, 2007) and directed by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, 2004, Hot Fuzz, 2007) premieres in August with a build-up at Comic-Con International. At Stumptown, Oni was selling the books, t-shirts, and posters in anticipation both of the film and the final book.

A big summer movie, a series distributed by a small publisher, a book with a distinctive style and voice, not to mention an upcoming video game, Scott Pilgrim is at the intersection between different tribes of readers, fans, and media, and fits in comfortably at both cons. Not all work will cross over so easily, but the fact that some can shows that the world of American comics is both big and small.