Last weekend's Linework NW Illustration and Comics Festival in Portland, OR highlighted an emerging trend for North American comics shows—curated, one day shows that are free to the public and located in hip, urban neighborhoods with heavy foot traffic. Inspired by similar shows—such as the Toronto Comics Art Festival, Comic Arts Brooklyn, Minneapolis' Autoptic, and the Short Run Festival in Seattle - Linework NW was both a fun, community event as well as a modest but undisputed hit with exhibitors, according to both show exhibitors and festival co-organizers, Francois Vigneault and Zack Soto.
Lineworks NW acted as a de facto replacement for The Stumptown Comics Festival on the Portland show schedule. Stumptown was a previous attempt at setting up an indie-friendly “Comic Arts Festival”, or CAF along the line of TCAF and MoCCA, but after running for several years, organizers put the show on hold and folded their programming slate into the more mainstream Rose City Comic Con.
Ever since what is believed to be the US's first comic book convention, Comicon 1964, was held fifty years ago in New York, NY, the predominant comics convention business model in the United States has been a collector-centric one where attendees are charged admission at the door to access hard to find to find comic books, toys and art. As comics movies and culture have flourished over the past decade, larger shows based on a priced admission model, such as San Diego Comic Con and neighboring Emerald City Comic Con in Seattle, now regularly sell out to the general public months in advance.
But the model has clear limitations, chief among them the high barrier of entry it creates for casual comic book buyers. Shows like Linework NW seek to buck that trend by creating a welcoming, flea market-style atmosphere that encourages browsing and socializing in a carefully planned retailing environment. These “CAFs” also showcase emerging artists, illustration, and graphic novels in an attempt to appeal to comics readers who are not necessarily part of the weekly comics shop crowd.
Vigneault, who co-organized San Francisco’s Zine Fest for six years, said that doing a free convention is “a no brainer,” and adds that “charging people money to come into a commercial space closes off this world where it’s just …people buying stuff (who) have already bought into the concept of comics. I’m a comics person but I’m really interested in everyone else.”
Exhibitors at Linework NW had to apply for a table and were then selected by a panel that included Soto and Vigneault, among others. Fifteen exhibitors (out of a final total of fifty-nine) were preapproved and given discounted table fees so organizers could put a deposit on the venue, the Norse Hall, in Portland’s tony Burnside area. In addition to popular cartoonists like Jim Woodring, Benjamin Mara, Michael Deforge and Yumi Sakagawa, exhibitors included several prominent local publishers, such as Dark Horse, Fantagraphics, and Oni Press.
The general consensus among publishers was that the show exceeded expectations sales-wise. "With a unique location, small number of exhibitors and good community outreach it was a fantastic day,” said Jen Vaughn of Fantagraphics. Independently exhibiting artists generally said that sales were good but not great. As cartoonist, Ed Luce (Wuvable Oaf), put it, "I was in the black." However, blockbuster sales hardly seemed to matter to the exhibitors Publishers Weekly spoke with, all of whom said they were looking forward to next year and considering how they might change their stock to cater to the local Portland audience that kept the show bustling and busy with large crowds throughout the day and into the evening. The show ran from 2:00—9:00 PM and panels were held in the bar adjoining the hall, which made for a free-wheeling, festival-like atmosphere.
Soto and Vigneault confirmed to PW that, although Linework NW took a small financial loss this year, they're already looking to next year too, with the goals of making the show bigger, sustainable and profitable. As organizers of free one-day shows that are more accessible to the general public continue to tweak the model, they appear well positioned to become a vital part of the comics market that could grow comics readership in their own backyards.