Maybe it’s the weird vibe and omnipresent clouds. Maybe it’s the streak of unrepentant creativity. Or that DIY self-sufficiency thing that seems to be in the water.
Whatever it is about the Pacific Northwest, comic-book creators love it. This region is home to four of the comics world’s most successful and respected independent publishers in the thriving billion-dollar industry. In comics, there’s the big two — corporate-backed superhero factories Marvel and DC — and everybody else.
Marvel and DC account for about 80% of the retail market. Among everybody else, Fantagraphics Books in Seattle and Image Comics, Dark Horse Comics and Oni Press in the Portland area pull in around 11% combined — more than $110 million.
Not only that, these publishers have a hand in some of the largest pop-culture phenomena to sweep nerdom in the 21st century, from “The Walking Dead,” “Hellboy” and “The Umbrella Academy” to some of Generation X and Y’s most beloved coming-of-age stories like “Scott Pilgrim” and “Ghost World.”
Punch up Netflix and chances are something on the first page of your menu screen originated at one of those four publishers. Probably something dark and moody and a little bit strange.
“I think the Pacific Northwest definitely stirs something in the soul,” said Eric Stephenson, Image publisher and chief creative officer. “There are any number of spots I could name in the Pacific Northwest that I think just have a very profound effect on you in terms of just how you view the world. It’s beautiful. It’s a gorgeous place. And I do think that that affects people on a very deep level.”
That connection will be evident as thousands of writers, artists, editors and publishers are expected to descend upon Emerald City Comic Con at the Washington State Convention Center from March 12-15. (Editor’s note: As of March 6, Emerald City Comic Con has been postponed until the summer.)
Coming to the Pacific Northwest
Stephenson and Image’s pantheon of highly successful executives — such as Robert Kirkman (“The Walking Dead,” “Outcast”), Todd McFarlane (“Spawn”) and Erik Larsen (“Savage Dragon”), a former Bellingham resident — chose to move the creator-owned publisher to Portland from the Bay Area in 2016 when their lease came up.
Already home to Dark Horse, Oni, creative collectives like Helioscope and scads of independent creators, Portland has reached something of a critical mass that was hard to ignore for the publishers of “Saga,” “Monstress” and “East of West.” Stephenson said Seattle was a consideration, but that he and others had attended the weeklong ComicsPRO conference in Portland a few times and made up their minds.
“When you’re here for that, you do get the sense that you know that there’s a lot going on, comicswise,” Stephenson said. “And after the second time we had done that, it was like, ‘Oh, you know, Seattle’s great. But Portland seems like a good place to call home.’ With all the changes that were going on in the Bay Area at the time, it just seemed really appealing.”
Image’s move cemented Portland and the Pacific Northwest as the mecca of indie comics.
“I think Portland is the capital of comics these days,” said Eric Reynolds, associate publisher at Fantagraphics. “I think Seattle was at one point, in the ‘90s probably. But Portland has definitely become a bona fide phenomenon.”
‘We just have different tastes’
Fantagraphics is the dean of PNW publishers. Created in College Park, Maryland, in 1976, the publisher moved around before settling in Seattle in 1989, and has largely had the city to itself over the years.
The company has used up two or three of its nine lives, flirting with bankruptcy over the decades. But it has emerged as the most literary of the Pacific Northwest’s publishers with titles like “Ghost World,” “Black Hole,” “Love and Rockets,” “Hate” and many others that are considered profound pieces of art.
“At the end of the day, we just have different tastes [from the bigger, mainstream comics houses], and I think we look to publish the best that the art form of cartooning or the medium of comics has to offer, regardless of subject matter — or because of the subject matter,” Reynolds said. “We’re not really in the floppy [comics format] business, and we don’t really play that kind of game as far as trading in a lot of the same genres that the direct-market floppy publishers do. We really just look to publish singular works of comics and cartooning … that just sort of elevate comics to a place that puts it on par with any other artistic medium we take seriously in our culture.”
Like Fantagraphics, Oni Press works on the more literate end of things, with a line of smart creator-owned comics mixed with licensed properties like the amazingly popular “Rick and Morty” and “Invader Zim” adaptations. (“Rick and Morty” is in its fourth season on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim; “Invader Zim” earned a cult following over 27 episodes on Nickelodeon in the early 2000s.) The company, founded by Bob Schreck and Joe Nozemack in 1997, only publishes a few monthly comics, mostly focusing on books with singular or irregular releases that tackle genres other than superhero.
“We have an opportunity to help usher in new stories in ways we never imagined when we set out to publish comics more than 20 years ago,” said James Lucas Jones, Oni Press publisher.
Morphing and evolving
Like many in Portland, Oni’s founders got their start at Dark Horse, a stable presence that’s shown the ability to masterfully morph and evolve beyond the direct-market model over the years. The publisher lost “Star Wars” a few years ago when Disney (and thus Marvel) acquired the franchise, for instance, but Dark Horse has replaced it with hits like “Stranger Things,” “Minecraft” and “Steven Universe.”
The company, founded by Mike Richardson in 1986 in Milwaukie, just outside of Portland, also has sold millions of Japanese manga translations and video-game artbooks such as “The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia.” The company also has a first-look deal with Netflix, furthering its reach.
Dark Horse senior editor Daniel Chabon says, “It’s just a big tree of things.”
“Mike Richardson is still at the top and approving every book,” said Chabon, editor of titles like “Hellboy” and “Berserk” and brother of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon. “And my favorite thing about working at Dark Horse is that Mike Richardson really believes in his editors. And those editors also believe in the creators that they work with. So when I’m pitching something to Mike, he really trusts me on what I’m bringing in. It’s a great place to work.”
Michael Negin, global comics talent manager with ReedPOP, the company that owns ECCC, has a theory about why the Pacific Northwest has been so welcoming to the comics industry. Just walk the halls of the convention center during ECCC and you’ll see all the evidence you need.
“What I find interesting is there’s a big energy there, and there’s a lot of working talented, creative people, not only in Seattle but Portland and in other parts of the Pacific Northwest,” Negin said. “But the people in general, the audience, the fans, like if they just want to do cool art, they just do cool art. And if they can, they can post it online or they can make stickers and pop them all over the city or whatever the case may be. They just want to show their love for the medium.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re working artists,” Negin said. “They’re the guy who works in the Starbucks and he just wants to draw, or there’s the person who’s a teacher during the day and at night wants to wants to delve into web comics. It really fosters that community.”
More about the publishers
Retail market share rank: Third
Bestselling title: “The Walking Dead,” Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard
Future hit: “Adventureman,” by Matt Fraction, Terry Dodson and Rachel Dodson: The new series from a trio of Portland-area creators is due April 29.
Dark Horse Comics
Location: Milwaukie, Oregon
Retail market share rank: Fifth
Bestselling title: “Berserk,” Kentaro Miura
Future hit: “X-Ray Robot,” by Michael Allred and Laura Allred: From the creator of PNW-set “iZombie,” the Roseburg, Oregon, couple’s collaboration is due March 25.
Retail market share rank: Ninth
Bestselling title: A virtual tie among “Scott Pilgrim” by Bryan Lee O’Malley, “Rick and Morty” by Zac Gorman and CJ Cannon, and “The Tea Dragon Society” by Katie O’Neill.
Future hit: “Achewood: The Complete Canon,” by Chris Onstad: This collection that captures the entirety of Onstad’s webcomic is due Sept. 30.
Retail market share rank: 18th
Bestselling title: “Ghost World,” Daniel Clowes
Future hit: “I Am Not Okay With This,” Charles Forsman: The young-adult book is available now, but snatch your copy before they run out. The show debuted on Netflix last week and is a real hit for the network.