Comicon, Olympia Style: One nerd's observations on the 10th Annual Olympia Comics Festival

By Jason Baxter on May 23, 2011


I've reported on no less than four comic book conventions, and attended something around twelve. I've never been to the granddaddy of them all-the media-blitzed San Diego Comicon-but I've logged some serious nerd hours searching back-issue bins at various trade shows, nervously chatted with Paul Pope about Jean Girard at Portland's Stumptown fest, and watched Seattle's Emerald City Comicon grow increasingly larger and more ambitious over the past decade.

All the same, I've never been to a comicon as small and singularly Northwestern as Saturday's Olympia Comics Festival (also in its tenth year). Everything, from the "Third Wave Feminism in Comics" panel that kicked off my Oly Comics Fest experience, to the generously low price of admission (everything was free except the $5 "stage show"), to the decentralized sprawl of the festival (which spanned four separate locales), to the emphasis on alternative, underground, and self-published material pegged the weekend event as quintessentially Olympian. Even the festival guide was a Xeroxed black-and-white onesheet with the authentic no-budget aesthetic of 'zine culture. Restricting the floor space in the Olympia Center to actual comic artists served to further differentiate this festival from similar events. Most conventions are congested with vendor booths and retailers, but this one was less crowded, less hectic, and driven more by art than commerce; powered by raw creative expression rather than geeky adulation (no Spock, Sherlock).

The aforementioned panel on Feminism yielded fewer insights than I'd hoped, despite bringing together cartoonist and essayist Megan Kelso and younger contemporary Andrice Arp (Hi-Horse). Then again, there were no mics, and I was near the back of Room 101, so maybe I was missing all the juicy stuff (Kelso's voice carries, Arp's does not). Still, it was fun hearing Kelso-who attended Evergreen State College contemporaneously with Kathleen Hannah-reminisce about the "electrical energy" she felt in the city during the birth and evolution of the Riot Grrrl movement. The work of a newer generation of female cartoonists (like Arp and others) seems possessed of a self-confidence and angst-lessness that Keslo sees as "post-Riot Grrrl," and which might not exist in the medium today had it not been for the ideological heavy-lifting done by early-'90s feminist musicians, writers, and-yes-cartoonists. The audience (which was almost equitably divisible along gender/sexual lines) had some smart questions, and Kelso had a few winning anecdotes up her sleeve. My favorite was her explanation for a cheeky illustration of US President Alexander Hamilton: "He was described as having violet eyes, and the only other person I could think of who had violet eyes was Elizabeth Taylor."

"Maybe he smelled like White Diamonds, too," ad-libbed moderator Abbey Bruce.

Following the panel, I explored the show floor for a while, picking up an old Dash Shaw collection and a handful of 'zines. Based on my inspection, the spread of underground "comix" being hawked ranged from "totally awesome" to "why bother?" That said, everything in the room was preposterously affordable, with a good chunk of the 'zines on display being free. The room reminded me of the DIY-versity of Stumptown, only there was a total, characteristically Olympian absence of corporations/publishers (even forward-thinking locally-based indies like Oni Press or Top Shelf Books).

At the nearby Danger Room Comics, co-owner Frank Hussey was proselytizing on behalf of the festival he helped organize, urging customers both young and old to go check it out. He was back at the Olympia Center in time for the start of the "Walk a Mile in Paul Chadwick's Shoes" panel, featuring the acclaimed local creator of Concrete. For the uninformed, Concrete, as Christian Carvajal wrote in his Volcano preview article, follows "the adventures of [former political] speechwriter Ron Lithgow after a serious case of alien experimentation." It's also one of the most quietly profound comic series I think I've ever read-gorgeously rendered, with lovingly well-realized characters and legitimately exciting scenarios. Besides plumbing serious philosophical depths, Chadwick's tales incorporate an evident and appreciable love for the natural world. Concrete may be an imposing character, but there seems to be no shortage of stories that Chadwick's been able to fit his hulking gray frame into: "Killer Smile," for example, is a hand-wringing thriller narrative, whereas his most recent Concrete collection "The Human Dilemma" is a deeply political examination of the under-discussed issue of global overpopulation.

As Chadwick narrated a slideshow on Concrete and some of his other past and future projects, I couldn't help but notice that in person, he somewhat resembled his signature creation: soft-voiced, incredibly contemplative (sometimes staying silent for five or ten second intervals before answering questions), stocky in his slate-grey blazer, with small, gentle eyes and a relaxed, self-effacing manner. To my surprise, Chadwick stuffed his presentation with news on upcoming projects. Attendees were the first people, anywhere, to publicly glimpse some gorgeous wraparound oil-painted Concrete covers for an upcoming story that may or may not be released as a standalone graphic novel. One features Concrete in the middle of a vast ocean of sand dunes, with a lightning storm raging in the sky next to an apparition of Mother Earth. In addition to this story, Chadwick's publishing three new Concrete shorts in 2011 (one has already appeared in the most recent issue of Portland-based Dark Horse Comics' re-launched flagship title Dark Horse Presents). One of these narratives will be a "political story about the overuse of tasers," another has Concrete encountering a voice coming from beneath the caldera of Hawaii's Haleakala volcano. The 54-year-old writer/artist has even more in the works, including the "wonderful, pulpy" miniseries Seven Against Chaos with ailing sci-fi author Harlan Ellison for DC Comics, a for-kids comic called Sid and Siddhartha, the Concrete novel that he's "ten years deep into," and a rom-com-script-cum-graphic-novel penned by Dark Horse founder Mike Richardson.

The tireless, insightful Chadwick also explained that he's been mentoring younger cartoonists. Portlandite Sam Ford, he said, might be a name we'd recognize from the Northwest music scene. Ford plays in a metal act called "Wizard Rifle," who sound about as ridiculously heavy as you might imagine. It's a band that's as loud and in-your-face as Chadwick is quiet and thoughtful.

For his final slide, Chadwick-ever the cosmically-attuned armchair naturalist-selected a photograph of the Milky Way at night, seen in all its luminous glory spackling the night sky over a desert vista. "I just wanted to leave you with this image," he said, matter-of-factly. It seemed a fitting way to close out a day devoted to the power of visual storytelling and the overwhelming importance of artistic integrity.