Each year at San Diego Comic-Con the comics industry gets together and celebrates the best artists and writers of the industry with the Eisner Awards, named after the pioneering American cartoonist Will Eisner. This year Oregonians took seven of the prizes. We’ve talked with five of the winners to get to know more about their work and what makes Portland such a powerhouse for the industry.
Douglas Wolk took home the award for Best Comics-Related Book for All the Marvels. An attempt to make sense of the entire Marvel universe, 60 years of interconnected stories and characters, including many most casual readers never heard of. This was his second award in the category, after Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean won in 2008. He tweets at @douglaswolk
Books with Pictures, owned by Katie Pryde, won the Spirits of Comics Retailer Award, recognizing it as one of the best comics shops in the world. Opened in 2016, Books with Pictures prides itself on being a comic store for everyone, prominently featuring books by a diverse group of creators. Books with Pictures is at 1401 S.E. Division St., the former site of the Portland bookstore institution Longfellow’s.
Kelly Sue DeConnick has had a long career in comics and worked hard to raise the profile of women working in the industry. Her work on Wonder Woman Historia: The Amazons won Best Single Issue/One Shot. Historia uses Wonder Woman as a springboard to explore the origins of the amazons. She is one of the founders of Creators for Creators, a nonprofit group that supports upcoming comics creators. She tweets at @kellysue
Mark Russell is well known as a satirist and took home the award for Best Humor Publication for Not All Robots, a dystopian sci-fi set in a climate-change ravaged world where humans are being made obsolete by robots. He tweets at @Manruss
You Died: An Anthology of the Afterlife, co-edited by Portlander Kel McDonald with Andrea Purcell, took the award for Best Anthology. When not working on anthologies they have two webcomics ongoing right now, The City Between and You Are the Chosen One. One of the comics in the anthology, Funeral in Foam, was written by another Portlander, Casey Gilly, with Raina Telgemeier, and won the award for Best Short Story.
In addition, veteran Portland comics writer David Walker won an Eisner for Best Continuing Series, Bitter Root, with Chuck Brown and Sanford Greene. You can read Oregonian columnist Steve Duin’s profile of Walker here.
Douglas Wolk: The Connector
Congratulations of your second Eisner! How did it feel to win again?
I’m delighted. This took a really long time to write and I’m glad it worked out.
How long did it take to write?
When I got the contract, I thought reading all those comics would take a year. And then then six to ten months to write the book. And then six and a half years later I was done. My son had started looking at comics with me and he was very interested in how they fit together. And I thought, “What would happen if I read them all?” I realized that was a book. And Penguin thought so as well.
What is your first memory of comics? When did you know that they were for you?
I’ve read comics since I was really small; my parents would get me Richie Rich. In the summer of 1979, I was visiting my grandparents in upstate New York. I went to a drugstore and picked up an issue of Green Lantern/Green Arrow and read it a billion times. I needed to know what happened next. When I got home I went to a store and they had the next issue and another issue with the same characters. So, then I had three. A couple weeks later I realized there’s a store not too far away and it specialized in comics, and they get new ones every Friday. A couple years later they taught me to use the register and I ended up working there from middle school through high school.
What was it like reading every Marvel Comic Book?
I wasn’t reading the comics in order, I read whatever I felt like any given day, otherwise I would have lost my mind. This is probably Stockholm Syndrome talking, but after a certain point I could find something to enjoy in even very bad comics. Like a detail from a particular writer or artists that only they would do. Or how they reflected the world in an interesting way. People asked if I read every issue of NFL Super Pro that came out in the early ’90s (it’s exactly what you think it is). I did. In the next-to-last issue of the series they had a parody of the mythopoetic men’s movement. You won’t find something like that in a good comic. It told me less about Marvel than it told me about what American culture had been like for the last 60 years.
In an issue of Avengers in 1972 the last panel says, “use the power to vote eighteen,” because eighteen-year-olds could vote then. The origin of the Hulk is a scientist getting hit by an atomic bomb and turning into a monster. That’s a cold war fantasy but it’s not just a cold war fantasy. Just around the time that Jack Kirby and Stan Lee would have started working on the first Hulk story a moratorium on international nuclear arms testing was breached by the Soviet Union and U.S. We were testing nuclear bombs again. There were a ton of references to Watergate when that was going on. There’s a textual reference issue of Daredevil “Twisting slowly, slowly in the wind,” a quote from that era. And there’s an amazing Captain America story where the head of the secret empire, a criminal conspiracy, is unmasked in the oval office and it’s a thinly veiled Richard Nixon, who then kills himself. This came out three months before Nixon resigned. There are always ways in which the comics of the moment reflect the moment. It’s a little less apparent how the comics of this moment are reflecting the moment, but ten years from now we’ll look back and say “oh, that’s a 2022 story.”
As the definitive expert for now, who is your favorite character and story arc?
My answer to this changes practically every day. There are things I never would have read that are super interesting. Mark Gruenwald was writing Captain America in the early ’80’s and ’90s. He’s not the flashiest writer, and didn’t work with flashy artists, but he was really pushing to try things textually and thematically like no one else was doing. As far as characters go, Squirrel Girl is really up there. The fact that she’s unbeatable has nothing to do with her powers, it has to do with the fact she’s just incredibly good at nonviolent conflict resolution. That’s the running joke of her story. You wouldn’t think that would be the basis for an action/adventure series, but it is.
How did you get into writing about comics?
In the early ’90s I was a managing editor at a music magazine and we had a lot of pages to fill. The editor thought we could do stuff on non-music media and asked if I wanted to do a comics review every month. That led to opportunities to write for the Village Voice, World Art, and it just kept going. At a certain point I left the magazine to be a freelancer. I realized there’s a lot of people writing about pop music and not a lot of people writing about comics for a general audience. I realized I was good at communicating what is interesting about this thing to someone who isn’t necessarily interested in it. Since I finished the book this has basically been my full-time gig.
How do you write about comics?
It’s always a matter of figuring out who your audience is and making something special for them. I was the New York Times graphic novel reviewer for a number of years. The questions were what do I pick, and what do I say, about a comic that make someone who reads The New York Times interested.
One of the reasons this book took so long was that the first draft was really just me talking to myself. Not writing something for a curious person who was interested in comics. My editor told me I had to reconceive this entire project and I basically rewrote 85 percent of this book from scratch. I’ve been put off by the way discourse on comics can be insular and I wanted to fix that as a writer. It took a while but I’m really happy with how it came out.
How did you figure out how to explain comics to readers in a way that makes them want to pick them up? Or see them in a new way?
That’s the question at the heart of arts criticism. Back in 2002 I got to do the national arts journalism program at Columbia (which doesn’t exist anymore) for mid-career journalists. The idea was that we could take any classes we wanted to take to study art disciplines without writing about them. Columbia didn’t have comics classes, but I took classes on visual narrative, introductory drawing, and art theory. It was a year of looking at the medium from the inside out. After that I got to write some comics, which was fascinating, too. I worked with an incredible artist, Ulisas Farinas, on a Judge Dread mini-series (it was basically about how much I hate L.A.) and that gave me more insight for writing.
Have you worked on any other comics?
I’ve done work for Know Your City, and a couple short stories, but I’d love to do more comics writing.
What’s next for you?
The book came out a year ago but I’m still doing a lot to promote it. I have another project coming up, a different kind of cultural criticism, but that’s in the early stages. I’m doing a little freelancing and a lot of giving talks right now.
Any comics recommendations?
I like to recommend something specific for a specific reader. The point is not to tell people there is a canon, these are the hundred comics to read before you die, it’s to give a tour of the territory. There’s not one book I’d recommend because there’s not one book I’d recommend to everyone.
Where can people find your writing online?
Katie Pryde: The Bookstore
Congrats on the award! You were chosen out of thousands of comics shops around the world. How did it feel to be selected?
It’s extremely validating, in that way we wish we didn’t need validation but we do. I work very hard at the store and my staff does too and I love getting that recognition for them as well.
What is the judging process like?
It’s a whole darn thing! There’s a call for nominations in late winter/early spring when customers or professionals in the comics industry nominate shops. There’s a first pass of those nominations to invite shops to contribute judging materials. Once you’ve been invited to submit you submit a comprehensive packet. They ask for a video of your store layout and a written packet answering questions about your store operations, events, and community engagements. Then a panel cuts it down to a short list of finalists. The five finalists were announced a week before the Eisners.
What is your first memory of comics? When did you know that they were for you?
My first comic was probably Doonesbury or Calvin & Hobbs, newspaper comics. But my first periodical was Sandman, which is having a renaissance right now on Netflix. I was a pretty moody gothic kid in the ’90s. Sandman was the first time I saw a comic that I felt like it was just for me. I found a lot of superhero comics of the time off putting in their presentation and art style, the way they drew bodies.
What pushed you to open your shop? I read that you were in academia before.
I was working on a Ph.D. in the history of science at Cornell. I finished my masters and was midflight on my doctoral dissertation and was not in a place where I wanted to finish. So, I left academia and helped found a literary magazine in Portland, which was not a financial success, and then I went to work in tech for a couple of years. It was really interesting, and huge for my personal development, but not personally fulfilling.
Eventually my business partner and I decided to wind down the company. It was a nice long offramp, so I had a lot of time to think about what I wanted to do next. It was right during the first round of comicsgate (a lot of men being really awful on the internet about women and minorities and their place in comics) and I was very personally wrapped up and angry about that. And because Portland is Portland a lot of my friends were comics people and I spent a lot of time talking to them about that. We said “someone out to start a proper feminist comic book shop, a proper queer comic book shop.” And then I wondered if it could be me who does that thing we’re all talking about doing. I spent a good number of months working on a business plan and doing informational interviews, learning how to run a comics shop. And then I opened the store I wished I had as a kid. A store I felt that Portland and comics at large needed.
When you opened the shop you wanted to make a very inclusive, specially feminist, specifically queer comic shop. How did you design your shop to realize that vision?
I love that question. The first structural choice I made was that I wanted the shop to be an easy place for women to come to find comics. That was priority number one. Because women are statically/disproportionally caring for children it was really important that I have a good children’s section because that is one of the things that makes a space inviting for women in that demographic (children are also underserved in the comics market). The motivation was to facilitate parents bringing their kids into the shop and picking up something for themselves too. I actually interviewed a bunch of people with kids with special needs to learn how best to lay out a kids section to support their kids to be as independent as possible.
We are really attentive to our stock. We make sure we’re aware of and carrying works by women creators, creators of color, queer creators and staying on top of those voices in publishing which are often overlooked or coming out from smaller presses. The policy has always been at least half of the books facing out on the shelf should be women or not white. It’s not always easy to do given the population of work available, but it’s gotten easier over time. We’ve also prioritized graphic novels over single-issue content (books with spines over staples) because for a lot of readers coming from other forms it’s a lot more comfortable to pick up a book and know that it’s a whole story and not a fifth of a story you have to come back the next month to complete. I nostalgically love single issues which is why I still carry them, they’re fun, but about 70 percent of our business is in bound books, whether kids’ graphic novels, trade paperbacks collections, or adult literature.
How does Books with Pictures engage with your neighborhood and the larger Portland community?
There’s three big pieces of this. The first is events and meetups at the store. We have a set of five monthly meetups right now. A trans youth meetup, kids who do art, queer youth more broadly, an adult creators of color meetup, and worknight for Portland creators. We also do regular book launches, signings, parties, and lectures at the store. Last year we worked to build a garden event space behind the store that has a stage and seating, and that’s a year-round community resource. It also allowed us to do a majority of our events outdoors, which was a lot more Covid-accessible for folks with immunological concerns. It was a priority for me for us to continue to be a community space. We had a big event this summer, a mini-con, where we put tables around the shop for small creators and vendors to sell mini comics. Douglas Wolk came in and ran trivia. We had a panel with Kelly Sue Deconnick, David Walker, Brian Bendis, who came and talked process with young creators.
The second category is the work outside of the store, various pop-ups and festivals. We’ve had several really successful book fairs for grownups. We make Scholastic-style catalogs and bring a table of stock out to a bar and hand out the catalog to the patrons so they can come buy comics from us. We have an annual event at Portland Pride and show up at various markets out in the community. It’s partly about having another channel to sell through, but also making more folks aware of our shop.
We also do a little bit of work, and I’m hoping to expand it, with schools and libraries. We did a lot of work with the David Douglas school district, selling books to schools and libraries, but also helping teachers work comics into their curriculum. Making sure the collections in libraries are as diverse as the kids in the schools.
What’s next for Books with Pictures?
Currently I don’t have any expansion plans. Because we’re so careful to be connected with our community, store expansion feels hard. We want to make sure we’re in the right place for the right reasons. But we’d love to expand our community offerings.
What are some of your favorite comics out right now?
The X-men franchise got a big reboot two years ago and they have been so much fun since then. I spend a lot of time in that universe. The Sins of the Black Flamingo is a new comic about a gay cat burglar who is stealing stolen magical artifacts from the descendants of Nazis. There’s a series by Aaron Durán called Season of the Buja about a Latina teen witch and her relationship with her mother and grandmother, set in Portland. The trade paperback should be out soon. I’ll also recommend a newish manga called Our Colors by Gengoroh Tagame, about a high school boy coming out in Japan with the help of a café owner in his town. It’s extremely sweet.
What makes Portland a comics town?
There was a series of waves of people traveling to Portland to make careers in comics. The beginning of that wave is definitely Dark Horse in the ’80s, encouraging people to work with them. When you ask people why they came here they tell you it was for Helioscope, which is a creator’s studio downtown, that has grants to bring people to Portland to work. Or because they stayed with Kelly Sue DeConnick, or Matt Fraction, or the Bendis’. And everyone was so hospitable and they just decided to stay. The momentum from these early pillars has just brought more and more people in. We just have such good people in our community, and people want to be a part of that.
Kelly Sue DeConnick: The Wonder Woman
Congratulations on your first Eisner award. How does it feel?
I never know how to answer “how does it feel” questions. Is there somebody that’s good at these? What do they say? Can we pretend I said that?
What is your first memory of comics?
Hard to say. It feels like they were always around. I remember trying to teach myself to draw faces by copying a panel of a woman’s face, but I couldn’t tell you what the comic was.
I do remember being bored on a road trip and my grandmother buying me a comic when we stopped for gas. It was On the Road with Andrae Crouch, so it would have been about 1977. I read that thing like thirty times. I think at some point I also cut some of the panels out and rearranged them.
When did you know that writing for comics was something you were seriously considering as a career?
I never made a conscious choice to pursue this.
Maybe it’s my ADHD, but I don’t tend to think like that — I’m rabid about the thing I’m interested in at the moment, but I’m not great with grand plans.
Wonder Woman Historia: The Amazons goes back to the origins of Wonder Woman, with the Amazons themselves. What inspired you to go back here?
I’ve always loved the Amazons; they’ve always been my favorite part of the DC mythos. I got kind of fixated on the idea of a Homeric epic with a woman at the center and Hippolyta seemed like the perfect choice.
Both Wonder Woman Historia: The Amazons and Pretty Deadly (nominated for an Eisner in 2014) deal with mythology. Do myth and folklore inform a lot of your projects?
My Aquaman run as well. Yeah… They do. Again, not a conscious decision, but it’s definitely a thing.
You’ve written numerous issues for both Marvel and DC. What is it like to write for characters like Aquaman and Captain Marvel? Especially ones that have such long histories.
It’s a tremendous honor. You know the Marvel universe is the longest running continuous narrative in human history? To have the opportunity to sew on that quilt is quite the thing.
Back in 2016 you started the #VisibleWomen on twitter to increase awareness of women working in comics. Have you seen a shift in how female creators are perceived?
Yes. And there are more of us now.
What projects do you have upcoming?
Historia is still ongoing, and I’m currently working on a stage show for the Wynn Resort in Las Vegas. Very excited about that. Nothing else that I’m at leave to talk about at the moment, sadly!
Any comics recommendations?
Oh, goodness. Let’s focus on Portland folks, shall we?
Have you seen Bendis’s new one, Phenomena? Gorgeous. I’m crazy-biased on this one, but Fraction and Lieber’s Jimmy Olsen is nothing short of comedy genius. Chelsea Cain’s Spy Island. Everything Sarah Mirk touches. Do you know about the Oregon History comics?
Portland had quite a few winners this year. What do you think makes Portland a comics town?
I don’t know. Maybe it’s the rain and the coffee? Our first year here we were invited to a live “reading” of Will Eisner’s Vietnam comics at a bar on a Thursday night. Such a weird event — and it was PACKED — standing room only. It was clear we’d found our people.
Mark Russell: The Last Laugh
How did it feel to win best humor publication?
Enormously gratifying. I’d been previously nominated for one Eisner or another seven times, but this was the first time I’d actually won one, so it was nice not having to drown my sorrows in the free chicken dinner.
What is your first memory of comics? When did you know that they were for you?
As a kid, my first love was MAD Magazine. But I never dreamed I’d be working in comics until I got the rather unexpected opportunity to write one.
How did you get started in the industry?
One day, out of the blue, Marie Javins from DC Comics contacted me and asked me if I’d be interested in writing a reboot ot Prez, which was a comic that ran for about four issues in 1974. The idea being that I would recast it as a satirical commentary on our political system. I had previously written a couple of non-comics books and I’d always just assumed that Marie had read one of them and was sufficiently impressed to give me a shot based on the books I’d written. It wasn’t until years later when I was telling this story at a panel at San Diego Comic Con that Marie (who was in the audience) stood up and shouted “That’s not true!” So I invited her up onto the stage so she could tell my actual origins story, which I was as interested in hearing as anyone else there. Onstage, she told me and everyone there that it had nothing to do with my books, but some Count Chocula fanfiction I had posted on Facebook. And that, I suppose, is the underwhelming path by I got into the comics industry.
Not All Robots is set in a dystopian future of ecological collapse, where humans are rendered obsolete by robots that resent them. It taps into two classic doomsday scenarios. Was there a reason that you combined these two ideas together?
The ecological collapse is the doomsday scenario I think will actually happen. The robots just represented a good metaphor for toxic masculinity, which is what the comic is really about.
A lot of the work you do is satire (whether writing for established IPs like The Flintstones or The Wondertwins or something original like God is Disappointed in You), what do you think makes good satire? And what draws you to it?
George Saunders once said that “humor is the truth faster than you expected it.” And I think that’s a pretty good guiding light for satire. Put things in as blunt and unflattering way as possible. I think satire also dovetails really well with science fiction, because all science fiction, like satire, is really commentary on our present predicament, no matter when it’s set or what it’s ostensibly about. Writing science fiction also gives you the advantage of being able to write about people in the here and now in a way that allows them to read it without getting defensive.
What are the stories you’re most interested in telling?
Parables, mostly. Mental tricks designed to help me work through things about life on Earth I don’t really understand. They say “write what you know”, but I mostly write what baffles me.
What is it like to work with another writer?
Why do you think Portland is a comics town?
I think it’s because so many creative and artistic people came here in the ’90s when the rent was cheap and you could start a comics shop in an abandoned Arby’s and make a go of it. The creative community is still here, but a lot of what initially drew struggling creatives here and gave them a chance to hone their craft is gone; or at least, I think it’s much more difficult to do in Portland now.
Any comics recommendations?
My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist by Adrian Tomine, and Fante Bukowski by Noah Van Sciver are some of my favorites from recent years.
Kel McDonald: The Anthologist
How did it feel to win an Eisner?
It was a big shock. I’m still surprised.
What is your first memory of comics? When did you know they were for you?
I read sonic comics I grabbed from the supermarket a little bit as a kid. But I didn’t get into seriously reading them until I started making them. Through creation is where I realized their potential and started trying to expose myself to as much as possible.
How did you decide on an anthology? Versus tackling the subject yourself?
Iron Circus Comics frequently puts out anthologies and the company brainstorms themes before deciding on them. The format was picked first and then the next step was figuring out a subject that would be taken from multiple angles but would work as short stories. The theme for You Died was the founder of Iron Circus, C. Spike Trotman’s idea. A lot of editing it was trying to execute Spike’s vision.
When selecting works for You Died: An Anthology of the Afterlife, what were you looking for?
We wanted to make sure the anthology wasn’t too lopsided toward one approach. So we have the science of decay and how that affects the environment, the grieving process, spiritual side of things, and how different cultures think of death. Anything in that range was good as long as we didn’t overwhelm it with one type of story.
Mythology and magic show up in a lot of your work. What about those things do you find interesting?
I’ve always been interested in magic and mythology. I think like pushing things beyond daily life and spicing it up with the fantastical. Part of it is escapism, but also sometimes it’s easier to discuss some topics through metaphor.
As a storyteller, what kind of stories are you interested in telling?
I like stories that have a found-family aspect the most, or use the fantastical to talk about human connection verse isolation. I particularly like werewolves, because of their dual nature, and they make it easy to discuss both. They have something that isolates them from most of humanity but at the same time it connects them with others that share their situation.
What is it like editing an anthology with another person?
All my anthologies have had a co-editor. I like having someone to bounce thoughts off of before giving feedback to a writer or artist. And it helps to have someone to share the workload of managing roughly 20 people for the same project.
Any comics recommendations?
I really like the manga To Your Eternity, which is about an immortal shapeshifter learning about the world and empathy via copying different forms of life. And I think everyone should read the manga Pluto, which is a retelling of an astroboy story as a robot murder mystery. And I rather like Finder by Carla Speed McNeil. It’s a series of short stories in a sci-fi alternate earth.
You have a lot of stuff on your plate. What projects do you have ongoing right now? Anything else coming up?
I’m currently drawing two comics. One is a webcomic that is free to read on my website, kelmcdonald.com. It’s called The City Between. It’s self-contained stories about werewolves in a futuristic city. The society knows werewolves are real so it is partly about how the world is reacting to their existence in different ways. I also have a comic on my Patreon called You are the Chosen One. It’s a fantasy story about 23 kids who get the same prophecy dream telling them they are the chosen one. It’s a deconstruction of the hero’s journey as we see how they all react to that news.