‘Linework NW: takin’ it over’

The newest indie art-fest and the shifting face of comics in Portland

Written by | April 22, 2014

  • An ariel view of the Linework NW convention at the Norse Hall. Photo by: Christopher Sohler.

    An ariel view of the Linework NW convention at the Norse Hall. Photo by: Christopher Sohler.

“As you’ve seen, the response has been huge,” said guest coordinator Sam Marx. The roar of the crowd around us evidenced the truth in his words.

Linework NW, founded and organized by Study Group Comics’ Zack Soto and François Vigneault, is the latest artist-centric independent comics and illustration festival to emerge in Portland. Study Group, coupled with the affiliation of Floating World Comics, has amassed a tightly interconnected group of artists from around the Northwest and well beyond its borders. Many gathered to show their work, boasting 59 tables and 110 exhibitors.

Outside Norse Hall on NE 11th, the site of the first annual Linework NW Festival, an exciting atmosphere lingered—one that was physically and spiritually miles away from the abysmal sack of joylessness that was Wizard World Comic Con in January. There were no Muppets posing for photos or creatures from the Dark Crystal making children shriek. People were wearing street clothes instead of spandex suits. Inside the hall, the bar was raging as a panel of comic artists drank beer and discussed their creative processes. The price of admission: free.

The relatively cramped Norse Hall was fit to burst from the moment doors opened for the day. As an incentive, the first 100 people through the door received an exclusive notebook with art by the legendary Jim Woodring, an honored guest of the fest. The notebooks were gone within the first 5 minutes, with a line full of disappointed showgoers still stretching out the door.

“There were some things we wanted to try out…and I’m happy to see they were totally successful,” said Vigneault. “One is that the show opened late [2 p.m.] We feel like that builds up a lot of energy; people are ready to come to the show.”

Energy came in waves: Showgoers consumed beer, ice cream, and a collection of some of the greatest independent art available in the Pacific Northwest until late into the evening.

The independent comics scene in Portland has been building energy in much of the same way for many years. As mainstream comics continue to have a rising presence in the cultural zeitgeist, interest continues to grow in the medium and how it operates on the local level. As a result, a niche market for independent creators is beginning to flourish. Aside from being the headquarters for publishers such as Darkhorse Comics and Oni Press, Portland has quickly become a hotspot community for comics artists. In fact, the community has grown so much that those within the group have trouble keeping track of it.

“[The comic scene] is bigger, and split into a lot of scenes,” said Vigneault.

“Yeah,” said Soto. “It’s big enough that there can be cultures within the culture.”

These cultures call out to many different kinds of artists, and, as a result, the community presents voices that can range from deeply personal and esoteric to the more universal and lighthearted. Many creators, like Sloane Leong, have relocated from other parts of the country for the sense of community here.

“It was kind of the biggest factor when I moved,” said Leong. “Portland is the perfect blend of comics and illustration. The community is super close-knit and I really like that.”

Leong’s presence in the Northwest lends us a voice and talent that operates in a very distinct way. Last summer she published her short comic “Clutch” for VICE, which probably lifted as many eyebrows as it did lunches.

“I had some notes and they said weird things like ‘teeth.’ They were a bunch of nonsensical notes and I made a story out of it,” said Leong. “There’s this wasp that will lay its eggs in ants, and the ants will become mind-controlled by those babies. And the babies grow on them and eventually eat them. I was like, that’d be really cool if it that happened on a large mammal. Like a human.”

On the other hand, the human stories of Portland-native Sam Alden offer some blissfully somber moments of introspection, punctuated by overarching tenderness.

“It’s usually very personal,” said Alden. “It’s almost always based very heavily on my own obsessions and things that are interesting to me.”

Alden, born and raised in Portland, published work in the Latvian anthology kuš and America’s Best Comics before recently moving to Montreal. His experiences within the community remain distinct from his time abroad.

“Portland’s an interesting comics scene,” said Alden. “I’m sure we have the most cartoonists per capita of any North American city. I honestly feel very confident in that statistic. But it’s still kind of a small town. [Portland] is the only city where I can go to a coffee shop, stay there for a couple hours and meet a cartoonist.”

“Portland has a more close-knit comic community since the city is smaller and it’s easier for people to gather,” said Yumi Sakugawa, an artist from Orange County, California.

Sakugawa, the author of the internet-comic sensation, I Think I Am in Friend-Love with You, which was recently adopted into book form, recognizes the community aspect in Portland. Yet, despite this affirmation, she raises a point about a possible trend in the comic scene that extends to the rest of the country.

“I feel like there’s really been a big migration of comic book artists moving to Los Angeles because they’re now working for Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon,” said Sakugawa. “There’s been a weird resurgence of a comic community existing in LA.”

Sakugawa’s words ring true when acknowledging the recent departure of Portland artists such as Angie Wang and Madeleine Flores. Coincidentally, before her move to LA to work on a new show for Nickelodeon, Flores spent one of her last days in Portland exhibiting at Linework NW.

Sam Alden also recently built ties with the growing community in LA.

“I just did a storyboard for an Adventure Time episode,” said Alden. “It was weird having to please a pre-existing audience for somebody else’s show. It was a nice challenge.”

Despite whatever degree of exodus this suggests, these opportunities are exciting and representative of the amazing talent at work in Portland’s artistic community today. Linework NW and the close group of friends and collaborators that foster this community will undoubtedly continue to prove that Portland is a thriving place for the independent creator and push their unique vision for years to come. In fact, plans have already been put into motion for subsequent Linework NW festivities.

“The plan for next year: We’re gonna look for a bigger venue,” said Sam Marx. “If we can keep it free and move to a bigger space, why not? Linework NW: takin’ it over!”

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