A comics festival usually conjures up the same image from person to person: one imagines a wide-open floor with many tables full of shops selling geeky knickknacks and apparel, comic writers and artists signing their work from a chair and more than a few comics enthusiasts squeezed into ill-fitting superhero garb.
The Projects, held this weekend at the Independent Publishing Resource Center, is a different kind of comics event. This free show is modeled more on the European style of comics festivals than on homemade Green Lantern outfits.
Jason Leivian, who owns and operates Floating World Comics in Old Town, is organizing the event with Dunja Jankovic and Lisa Mangum, two comics program teachers at the IPRC. Leivian talked about the event while manning the cash register at the front counter of his store, in between helping customers bringing up the newest issues of The Mighty Thor and Punk Rock Jesus.
“In Europe, it’s not about selling stuff,” Leivian said. “No one is sitting behind tables, you know, just selling comics. The focus is more about meeting other artists, making art together, collaborating. It ends up like a huge party—an art party, basically.”
The Projects initially began with the support of a successful Kickstarter campaign, which raised over $8,500 from online donors who wanted to see a new kind of comics show in Portland. Since then, the fest has garnered local sponsors like Sizzle Pie, Ninkasi Brewing Company and Blossoming Lotus. In addition, the IPRC itself has donated its venue for the full three days of the event.
Instead of a show floor lined with tables of artists selling their wares, The Projects aims to create an open space for creators and attendees to interact directly. A large part of the Kickstarter funds went to plane tickets for European artists like Igor Hofbauer, who plans to make a large outline of a mural on the back wall of the IPRC and encourage participants to paint by numbers.
This sort of spontaneous, freewheeling environment is what The Projects seeks to replicate from the European comics festivals. Jankovic in particular has experience in this arena, having organized the Skver Festival in Croatia. Mangum also spent time in Serbia engaged in graduate research on contemporary comics and underground art.
“[European festivals] are so drastically different from our comics festivals,” Mangum said. “It resembles more of a music festival in America, where people get together, they perform, they hang out—it’s sort of a party atmosphere. That’s how comics festivals are in Europe.”
Each day of The Projects is split between interactive activities and workshops during the day and panels, screenings and live events in the evening. On Friday night, Floating World Comics is hosting a book signing with Jonny Negron and Sammy Harkham, two cartoonists who have books coming out in October on PictureBox. The Hollywood Theatre is hosting a special screening by art collective Pink Flojd on Saturday night, to be followed by performances from local bands Nice Nice and Regular Music.
The closing party, curated by local TV show Experimental Half-Hour, will take place at Holocene on Sunday, with guests Atole, Goodnight Billygoat, Apartment Fox and Wild Thing. Though the rest of The Projects is free to the public, the shows at the Hollywood Theatre and Holocene will both have a $7 cover charge, and the Holocene event will be open only to those 21 and older.
The broad range of events casts a wide net; the organizers hope this will dissolve the divide between comics and other forms of art.
“We’re trying to open up the comics scene to other artistic scenes (and introduce international artists to local artists), and invite artists from other art fields to take a closer look at everything comics as a medium can offer,” Jankovic said in an email.
Some local experimental artists have been more open to the idea than others. Sean Christensen is one of the founders of Gridlords, a monthly comics performance and reading series that started this year in Portland. He encourages his rotating panelists to come up with unique or unusual ideas for their Gridlords sets, but he has run into some trouble when trying to get non-comics artists to participate.
“Some of the persons who I have contacted to do performances, who are strictly conceptual or performance artists and don’t have anything to do with comics, are immediately pretty not receptive to do a presentation alongside comics,” Christensen said. “Comics are frustratingly, kind of controversially, not necessarily considered art, still.”
The Projects-specific Gridlords panel takes place on Saturday evening, and despite Christensen’s problems in the past, the lineup is suitably diverse. Plans include creator readings, short films and even a dance interpretation of a comic.
“I want the comics artists to do something more multidimensional, sort of, and then I would like more conceptual performance artists to do something that’s specifically linear, that you could relate to that in some way,” Christensen said. “Getting them to like hang out together and do the same event, it’s a little difficult. But it seems like it’s coming together, so that’s good.”
Portland is known for one of the biggest comics communities in the country. Publishers Oni Press, Top Shelf Productions and Dark Horse Comics all reside in the Portland area. Several superhero comics creators have also found a home in this part of the Northwest, including Marvel alumni Jeff Parker, Matt Fraction and Brian Michael Bendis, who teaches a comics writing class at Portland State. The relatively low cost of living and a less dense population has contributed to Portland’s appeal to artists, comics and otherwise.
“To get a foothold in the art world in [Paris or New York] is a herculean task,” Mangum said. “You come to a place like Portland and there’s space, it’s affordable, and there’s room to do something.”
Though the vast array of events might seem strange or intimidating to someone not familiar with the comics or experimental art worlds, the organizers of The Projects are emphasizing an open atmosphere.
“We want total strangers to come out to this,” Mangum said. “It would be awesome if PSU students came. We absolutely don’t want this to be an insular activity, it’s not for any clique or group of people. We want kids, we want anybody to come out here and play and meet people and discover stuff.”
The IPRC is located on the corner of Southeast Division Street and 10th Avenue. The festival begins Friday with an opening reception at 8 p.m. and ends Sunday evening. For more information, visit theprojectspdx.tumblr.com.