Portland home to thriving comics scene

— Craig Thompson wanted to write comics but it was rough going when he moved to Portland six years ago.

His budget was so small, he said, that he'd wait outside fast-foot restaurants until people finished, then eat food off their trays.

"The first six months were harsh," says Thompson, author of the critically acclaimed, mostly autobiographical graphic novel "Blankets."

To survive, he painted houses for a scam artist who left him with $6,000 worth of bad checks. His bike was stolen. He and another man were assaulted by four men in a grocery store parking lot.

But he stayed and found a job as a designer with Dark Horse Comics, the nation's fourth-largest publisher in the growing comic book industry. Now Thompson is part of a thriving Portland comics scene that includes journalist Joe Sacco and superhero comics writer Greg Rucka.

Portland and its suburbs are home to such publishers as Dark Horse, Oni Press and Top Shelf Publications. The area is quieter than other comics hotspots like Seattle and New York.

"It's a place where you can daydream," says Sacco, who travels the world for his work. In peaceful Portland, "You can step out of your house and think while you're out on the streets."

Comics have come a long way from the newspaper-print funnies once sold at drug stores and newsstands, says publisher Michael Richardson, who founded Dark Horse Comics in 1986. Underground icons Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar broke new ground for comic book subjects in the 1960s, and Art Spiegelman's Holocaust tale, "Maus," brought a level of gravity to the form in 1986.

These days, readers are just as likely to find graphic novels crowding bookshelves as pulpy superhero pamphlets, Richardson says.

And the genre is growing. Graphic novels earned $100 million in 2002, a 33 percent increase from the year before, when they accounted for 1 percent of American book sales, according to Publishers Weekly.

Comics' growing narrative consciousness can be attributed to a changing customer base, says Richardson, the publisher. While fewer children are buying comics, teens and adults alike are turning to the medium.

Comic books and graphic novels are also gaining respectability as serious art forms, thanks to such literary endeavors as Thompson's "Blankets," said Top Shelf publisher Brett Warnock. "It's the golden age right now."

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