This weekend in Portland, Oregon, is the annual Stumptown Comics Fest, a gathering of comics creators and fans that has help to galvanize a certain cross-section of creatives in this town. I started my self-publishing career at a similar show, the Alternative Press Expo, which at the time was still located in San Jose, California. This was back in the days before the Internet, when being an Independent publisher meant you had a good hook-up at Kinkos who worked the graveyard shift. Back then, as it is now, most of the creators at A.P.E. were putting out comics. My good friends Ian and Tyson Smith were doing Oddjob for Slave Labor Graphics, and Jim Hill, whom I had yet to meet, was also publishing Caffeine through Slave Labor. There were also a handful of publishers, like myself, who were strictly doing magazines. This is where I met Eric and Martin from Giant Robot, who were some of the earliest supporters of BadAzz MoFo. And then there was Bust, Life Sucks Die, and a few others that I can’t recall at the time.
I loved going to A.P.E., just as I loved going to the San Diego Comic Con a peddling my wares. I met some great people between those two shows, and the career I have as a writer was honed and fine-tuned through the work that I sold on the crowded convention floors. Some of that has changed over the years. Gone are the days were I could set up at San Diego Comic Con and make $2000 in a day just by selling my ‘zine and t-shirts, and walk away at the end of the weekend with $5000 cash in my pocket. Hell, SDCC has become so big and out of control, I couldn’t even get a table to sell at if I wanted one—but that’s a topic for another time. Even though I seldom set up at shows like A.P.E. or SDCC or Seatlle’s Emerald City Comic Con or Stumptown, I still go, and I still support the independent creators who set up and hustle their goods as they try to make a go of it.
Being an independent creator isn’t always easy. I don’t care if you’re a musician, filmmaker, writer, painter, comic book artist, or whatever. Much of the time independents are supplementing their income with a “regular” job, or maybe their sponging off someone else like their parents or significant other, or maybe their making a living doing what they do, but most likely if that’s the case they’re still struggling to get by financially. I’ve been there. I’m still there. And yet every year I go to a few shows like Stumptown or Emerald City, and I spend money buying product from indie creators. I may see creators like Jeff Parker, who is writing Thunderbolts for Marvel, and even though I love that book, and Jeff is a good guy, the money in my pocket isn’t going to buy any Thunderbolts at Emerald City. I can buy Thunderbolts in any comic store in the country (and I do buy it from my local retailers). But I can’t necessarily buy Parker’s Underground, which he did with artist Steve Lieber—and that in and of itself is kinda sad, because that was published by Image Comics. But I digress.
There are several reasons to go to shows like Stumptown. First, you get to meet great creators, both established and up-and-coming. This year at Stumptown the established guests include Stan Sakai, creator of the classic Usagi Yojimbo (above), Mike and Laura Allred of Madman fame, Steve Lieber, Pete Bagge, Jamie S. Rich, and Batton Lash to name a few . Among the up and coming creators there are guys like Witch Doctor creators Brandon Seifert and Lukas Ketner. And then there’s Joëlle Jones, who is no longer up and coming, but not quite fully established, and still one of the best artists currently working in the industry, period. It’s always cool to meet the creators whose work you like and maybe get an autograph or buy some original art (and buying original art is great way to support independent creators). But the other reason to go to shows like Stumptown, A.P.E. and even SDCC, which still has a small press alley and a section for indie publishers, is to discover new things. Let’s face it; if you are a comic reader who goes to a comic book store on a regular basis, you can buy just about book by Marvel, DC, or some of the other more established publishers. But at these conventions there are dozens of creators with product that will never make it on the shelves of most stores. Not because of the quality of the work, but because of a whole host of other factors that drive the market and determine what sits on the shelf at your local retailer. If quality was an issue, then the work of Spike Trotman and Keith Knight would be on the shelves of every comic book retailer in North America, but it doesn’t work that way.
All of this is my way of expressing the importance of supporting independent creators and their work. Instead of spending $12 to buy three or four books by Marvel or DC, spend half of that money to buy one or two books from a creator or a publisher that is doing something bold and different (and by bold and different I mean primarily stuff outside the superhero genre). If you love comic books the way that I do—and when it’s all said and done, I really do love comics—then you need to embrace the medium and not the genre that is most closely identified with the medium. That’s to say there is more stuff out there than superhero stuff, which is the genre. The medium, however, is the combination of ideas and images that tell a story. Some of the best comic books (or if you prefer graphic novels) of the last twenty years have nothing to do with the superhero genre, but still represent the incredible potential of the comics medium. And all of these incredible works come from independent creators, some published by companies like Oni or Top Shelf, and some published by the creators themselves. But in order for indie comics to flourish, people need to support the creators.