View From Portland: The Portland Comic Book Show

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Comics month continues with the semi-annual Portland Comic Book Show!

I should start by saying that I have tons of nostalgia for this show. I’ve never had much nostalgia for individual comics, but I still remember being twelve or so and walking around the Memorial Coliseum and being amazed to see so many comics. Compared to a major con, it’s a pretty small affair, but at the time it seemed huge. I’d never shopped for comics anywhere but my local store, Sandy Grand Slam (later Interzone Comics), so this was my only regular exposure to anything beyond their inventory.

The show is also where I first met professional comics writers and artists. A socially awkward preteen who hadn’t fully developed my tastes yet, I looked at the list of attending artists’ work and simply brought everything on the list that I owned. Upon arrival, I stood silently in front of a series of artists I wasn’t deeply familiar with while they signed stacks of every comic of mine they’d ever been involved in. While I eventually started to have favorites and began to anticipate some people’s arrival, early on I just knew that getting my comics signed was part of fandom, and that it was cool.

Over the years, it’s hard to know how much the show shrank and how much my own experience had simply broadened, but talking to dealers today, they agreed with my memory that for years there were fewer and fewer tables and the floor was less and less crowded (The show itself is held less frequently now, as well). In the last few years, I’ve been gratified to see it appear to be back on the upswing.

The show itself is evolving, perhaps due to competition from the Stumptown Comics Fest, which is in two weeks. The last show featured a writers panel, this time there were two “talk/demonstrations.” It’s not much, but the trend is in the right direction. Both talks were informal, rambling affairs, punctuated by live sketching and audience questions––entertaining stuff.

The first of these was Shannon Wheeler’s talk. I didn’t record it in great detail, as much of what he had to say is covered in my interview with him and my coverage of his similar talk at Powell’s Books last year, though there were some gems. One highlight was Wheeler’s explanation of he and his Austin cartoonist friends’ attempt to develop a gimmick for an issue of their anthology comic, JAB. Unable to afford die-cutting or foil, they came up with a uniquely Texan solution: they shot the comics with a gun. They laid stacks of JAB issues on the ground and fired a .22 rifle through an appointed spot, the art of each page incorporating the hole. Variant covers were achieved through the use of higher caliber bullets, making JAB “the only comic where the more damaged it is, the more it’s worth.”

Much of the talk was about the Too Much Coffee Man Opera; Wheeler left the show to catch the matinee before returning to his table on the floor. Talking about the difficulty of writing the libretto, he said, “I didn’t really realize you could go out and get a rhyming dictionary.”

The second talk was by Stan Sakai of Usagi Yojimbo fame. The crowd had a wide diversity of ages, clearly including a lot of equally excited parents and children. Noting Usagi Yojimbo‘s upcoming 25th anniversary, Sakai commented that Usagi is “probably older than most of the people in this room. Makes me feel old.” Questions came from both young and old audience members, and the sketches generated during the talk proved a hit with the whole age range.

Sakai began by explaining the origin of the word “cartoonist,” which comes from the Italian word for cardboard, “cartone.” Once a master painter sketched his subject, several assistants were involved in copying it onto the surface he would paint on. The assistant’s assistant poked holes in the cardboard as part of making a grid. He was “il cartonist.” Therefore, Sakai joked, the name for his profession comes from “the flunky’s flunky.” He went on to describe his lifelong comics habit––he bought Fantastic Four #2 because it was 10¢, while DC Comics of the day were 12¢––and preempted the “why a rabbit question,” explaining that he was developing a samurai story and happened to sketch a rabbit whose ears were tied into a samurai’s top knot. He considered whether all of the characters should be anthropomorphic or if only Usagi should be an animal, “but that just sounded stupid to me.”

Sakai then went on to address the common question of where he gets his ideas, saying that “every. . . artist will say, ‘I don’t know'”. Adding that, “Usagi is not written for you; it’s written for an audience of one: me,” he talked about how the flexibility of the concept behind Usagi Yojimbo allows him to incorporate virtually any kind of storyline or character he wants. Next, Sakai illustrated how he creates an issue of Usagi Yojimbo. To demonstrate the thumbnail stage, he asked a child named Maxwell in the front row to give him the sequence of events that made up his day. Following along, Sakai created a thumbnail, labeled “Maxwell’s Day.” From there he held up penciled and inked art, as well as the “obsolete” steps of color guides and separations––a young girl a row behind me gasped in delight as the four color transparencies added up to a complete cover image.

Other topics included the importance of research: “It only enhances the story,” and the lack of research ruins an artist’s credibility. Asked about his hand-lettering, he professed to be “computer illiterate.” On Usagi’s long-standing connection to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Sakai noted that the two started at nearly the same time, and once the Turtles’ cartoon took off, Eastman and Laird asked him, “Want a toy?” They told him to have his people call their people. “I didn’t have any people. So they gave me some of their people. So for awhile we had some of the same people.” Finally, when asked the best part of his job, Sakai replied, “working at home.” He went on to say how lucky he was that his publishers over the years have largely left him alone, only seeing art when an issue is finished and trusting him to produce work on his own.

Back on the floor, it quickly became clear what kind of show this was for me. Sometimes I’m in the mood to get on the floor and dive into the 50¢ bins and other times I want to fill in holes in my trade paperback collection at half price (or at one table, three for $10). Today fit firmly in the latter, so I walked away with some Usagi Yojimbo I hadn’t read, some Fantastic Four, some Jaime Hernandez, and a few others. The coolest purchase by far was a set of Usagi sketchbooks directly from Sakai when I visited his table (which was very popular––even Darth Vader came over for a photo with him). While many sketchbooks are just that, Sakai’s are outtakes and “making of” material from Usagi Yojimbo, including pencils, thumbnails, alternate endings to issues and in one case a complete maybe-in-continuity story that’s never made it into the series. They are no doubt among the nicest convention mementos I’ve seen.

Both Sakai and his neighbor at the next table, Matt Wagner, were generous with their time, chatting in between signings and sketches. Wagner promised a big revelation for the ending to the current Grendel series, saying that Hunter Rose would prove to be even more evil than we’d known. I also talked with Kieron Dwyer, whose Starbucks boycott continues apace. Sadly, Tom Orzechowski had a last-minute lettering assignment and didn’t make it––I’d been looking forward to talking with him about his work on The Escapists, one of whose main characters is a letterer.

Once again, a great reminder of a childhood misspent among costumed people and moldy old comics, while the addition of panels and talks has helped to keep things fresh. Comics month is going well.

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3 Responses to “View From Portland: The Portland Comic Book Show”

  1. mooreroom Says:

    I have been so geared up for Stumptown, I completely forgot about this. Stan Sakai is good enough reason to have attended. Poop.

  2. Christopher Says:

    “Sakai then went on to address the common question of where he gets his ideas, saying that ‘every. . . artist will say, “I don’t know”‘”

    You know what’s weird? I do know where I get my ideas, for the most part. I usually just think about pop culture I’ve seen, and what it would be like if it were different.

    Which can leave you with derivative things, but for one thing I’m okay with that, and for another you can actually come up with some weird ideas if you work long enough.

    The comic I’m working on now for a class is about a cyclops cowgirl. I was thinking of cartoons like Naruto, where some kid has to prove himself in spite of opposition and bias, and I was trying to think of the stupidest handicap I could come up with. So I thought, “What about a cyclops? They have poor depth perception.”

    And then from there I figured she should work for Geryon, the three-bodied herdsman from Greek myth. I thought a cattle drive would be a premise that lent itself to episodic, short stories.

    So, I can actually explain pretty well where my ideas come from.

    Maybe it’s because I’m not a professional.

  3. StanSakai Says:

    Great report.

    I had a terrific time in Portland, once I got there. It is one of the nicest conventions around. I think I gave a number of examples of where ideas come from, including my editor Diana who was sitting in the audience. I am deathly afraid of her, and when she says I have a deadline you better believe I get the work in on time.

    For my own (short) con report, go on over to my Live Journal. There are other reports, such as one to Poland just a few days after getting back from Oregon.

    http://usagiguy.livejournal.com/17306.html#cutid1

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