For deeply involved comic book fans, Portland, Oregon has become synonymous with the medium. If film and television have Los Angeles and theater has New York City, then comic books definitely have Portland. Both Dark Horse Comics and Oni Press call the Portland area home, as do comic creators like Brian Michael Bendis, Matt Fraction, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Jeff Parker, Steve Lieber, Erika Moen, Chris Roberson and just about a million more. I’ve listened to so many podcasts where half of the conversation was Skyping in from Stumptown, and I’ve conducted my fair share of interviews with Portlanders, navigating the treacherous Pacific/Eastern time difference, that a trip to Portland would undoubtedly become something like a spiritual journey for a comic book lover like myself; it’d be a spiritual quest that I’d go on, not knowing what to expect and unaware of how it would affect me.
I went on that trip last weekend, and it did affect me.
I made the journey across the country with my good buddy Josh Wigler to visit another good buddy, Jim Gibbons. I hadn’t been to the other side of the country since 1999, so jet lag was a very new, very present threat for the first time in over a decade. But it was worth it, as going to Portland really opened up my eyes to an entirely new way of living.
Comic books feel integral to Portland in a way that I’ve never felt in New York City. Of course I felt that way about Portland because I traveled with a fellow comic book journalist to visit our friend, an editor for Dark Horse Comics, and we went to the 2013 Stumptown Comics Fest and its surrounding nighttime events. Portland felt like comics because comics accounted for a sizable chunk of what I did there. But it was to an extent that I haven’t felt living in New York City. New York City feels like comedy to me, because my social circles here were birthed from and are based around the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. And once a year, during New York Comic Con, the comedy and literally-everything-else-you-can-imagine in New York City gets shoved aside to make room for comics. For one weekend.
This isn’t to say that my adopted hometown isn’t comics territory. I’m sure it very much is for some people. That just hasn’t happened for me. All of my comic book friends in New York City are busy. They’re New York City-level busy. This city comes with undeniable hurry and hurdles. Schedules have to be wrestled with and public transportation pits potential experiences firmly against whatever time is allotted. A comic book party in Brooklyn on a weeknight? I live in Queens, so no thank you. There’s an easiness to Portland where it seems like everything is a possibility. And that’s surely because I was on vacation during a noticeably comic-book heavy weekend, but I think I got an accurate example of Portland’s pace.
Whereas New York City is filled with suit-wearing business types and more tourists than I care to fight my way through on my way to work (cursed Times Square office!), the residents of the Portland that I saw all seemed to have a look that says, “I follow my passion, so you follow your passion.” Passions ranged from playing killer guitar riffs outside of Powell’s Books to having the loudest hair at a booth filled with loud hair in Sizzle Pie, but everyone I saw kind of came across as inspiration to just do what you want to do. I can see how comics would thrive in a community filled with artists doing artistic things.
To give my city a compliment, though, it’s incredibly inspiring to live in the city that claims nearly one hundred percent of Marvel’s fictional output as its own. I’m a Marvel man, and getting to tell visiting friends that this particular Shake Shack is Thor’s favorite Shake Shack (as revealed by Mark Waid in a recent issue of “Indestructible Hulk”) fills me with a very silly pride. I can also walk around the part of town trashed by the Chitauri in “Marvel’s the Avengers” anytime I want. As someone whose primary introduction to New York City came from Fox’s “X-Men” and “Spider-Man” cartoons, it’s hard to not get inspired to write superhero comics while walking around this city.
But that leads me to my bigger point about Portland, and what it taught me. Comics really aren’t just about superheroes, and there is plenty of joy to be found outside of the narrow scope of the Big Two. Yes, I knew this already. And yes, I read plenty of non-superhero comics on a monthly basis. But being in the midst of a town and a convention that so thoroughly celebrates independent publishing with as much fanfare as C2E2 celebrated the fights and tights genre made me really take notice.
As a guy taking his first, cautious steps into the world of comic book making, it was downright inspirational to see so many people at Stumptown who just did it. People have comics inside of them and they made them happen. I’m currently in the “how do I what do I how much do I oh no” phase of creating a comic; after talking with people who went through the exact doubt-spiral, who then pulled themselves out of that spiral with a comic book firmly clutched in hand, I feel more confident than ever that I can do it too.
It’s not a stretch to say that in the recent past I only viewed creator-owned work as a stepping stone to getting into the major leagues and being handed the X-Men’s reins (and yes, I’d make the team nothing but ’90s X-Force and Maggott, so what?). Thanks to Stumptown, I now have a better understanding of the joy that creating original work can bring. I now see that there is a community ready to try new things and read comics based on how good they are and not based on whether or not they’re part of a larger franchise. Stumptown made me more excited to tell my stories, right now.
I don’t think Portland is the right place for me to live. New York City has made me an incredibly New York City person. I’m proud to live here; every day shows me something new, and I find myself desiring the struggle (and now I think I need to see someone about that…). But I’m very glad that I got to go to Portland and see firsthand what the city is all about, and have it kick me in my comic-pants. The next time I feel like making comics just isn’t worth it, I’ll pick myself up with thoughts of the faces of Stumptown. Let’s make comics.
Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts the podcast Matt & Brett Love Comics and is a writer for the comedy podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).