If you define literature as book-shaped text only, Portland isn’t high up on the list of US destinations known for their literary production. Storytelling, however, can take many forms in and across many media. Portland’s comic book and zine communities are great examples of making and celebrating artwork that combines visual and textual elements into a unified whole.
Powell’s: Books and beyond
The first stop on my tour is Powell’s Books, the largest bookseller in the area and, in their own words, “the world’s largest independent bookstore”. True to its name, the main branch City of Books at 1005 W Burnside Street occupies a full city block. In 9 color-coded areas, customers can browse new, used, and rare books, get a copy of an out-of-print book made by the Espresso Book Machine™, draw inspiration from thematically organized recommendations lists in bookmark format, and relax in the café section while pondering a purchase.
Powell’s Books also holds regular readings with local, national, and international authors. On June 6, Thi Bui presents her debut, the graphic memoir The Best We Could Do (Abrams & Chronicle Books, 2017), at the branch on Hawthorne Street. It tells the multigenerational story of a family who come to California seeking refuge from the Vietnam war. Both a family saga and an evaluation of history, it highlights how individual lives are impacted by historic events and their perception through a certain cultural lens.
With pen and pencil: Graphic memoirs
Although the book is autobiographical, Thi Bui points out its similarities to the stories of other Vietnamese-Americans. Her memoir is meant to add their underrepresented narrative to the body of US immigrant literature. Interestingly, Bui says she didn’t intend to write an autobiography; in fact, she resisted it for a long time because she didn’t want to expose herself and her family. Eventually, however, the family angle proved to hold the story layers together unlike anything else.
Also present at the reading is Craig Thompson, the comic book author most widely known for his graphic memoir Blankets (Drawn & Quarterly, 2003), a story about first love, family, and religion set in his native state Wisconsin. It was one of the first graphic novels I read, and I happened to reread it before my trip. The bio at the end stated he lived in Portland, but since it came out in 2003 (2009 in Germany), I didn’t expect this to still be correct, let alone come across him. While it turns out he now lives in LA, he is still open to answering my questions. Asked about autobiography in comic books, he mentions simliar struggles to Bui, and adds being worried to act vain or be perceived as vain for making his life the subject of an artwork. From the perspective of the author, however, he points out a distinct advantage compared to fiction: Story and plot are already there, which might be the reason why so many debuts are (auto)biographies or have autobiographical elements.
Zines: DIY with photocopies
While we tend to think of text and image as separate elements that could do without each other, media like comics show that there is artwork in which they form an inextricable, unified whole. The same is true for zines, which are defined as self-published, non-profit, low-budget magazines that are usually the result of an individual’s desire for self-expression and treat topics outside the mainstream. In a culture in which artwork is almost instantly available, reproducible, and traceable to its creator, the small scope of zines opposes this by allowing their makers to produce low-cost physical content, stay anonymous if they wish, or foster a small, dedicated community of makers and readers. While in Germany they are hardly known outside of alternative spaces, the US has a thriving zine subculture that is quite accessible to those who want to learn more about it.
One of the hubs for zine production in Portland is the Independent Publishing Resource Center (IPRC). For a small fee, artists can use the equipment to make and multiply their zines. Besides, the IPRC is home to a large library with zines on all topics imaginable, many of them rare due to their small print runs. It is involved in the organization of Portland Zine Symposium, an annual festival in July that brings the zine community together. During my visit in June, the IPRC was about to close before moving to a new place. Since Portland is booming, many areas are being gentrified. When the IPRC’s lease ran out, the owner asked for three times more rent because the formerly industrial area had become hip in the meantime. Fortunately, the IPRC found a new home at 1305 SE Martin Luther King Jr Blvd.
Portland: Expectation and reality
This development affects institutions and individuals alike. The Portland of the 1990s that attracted artists with its low rents is a thing of the past. Its culture of bearded men on bicycles playing in bands has spread around the globe, making it more difficult to pinpoint what is special about it. It is also a place where inequality between rich and poor is more visible than in other cities. On my first day in Portland, I encountered an astonishing number of people with mental health problems in the streets who had no place else to go. A distraught-looking woman had a seizure in the entrance of a house while across the street, people were patiently waiting in line for their artisan Sunday morning donut.
Homelessness is a problem in all major cities, in the US and across the globe, and hiding it from the eyes of tourists is certainly not the right strategy to combat it. Homeless people in Portland also report they are treated better and have better access to help than in other cities. Their overwhelming presence in public places, however, has definitely changed my perception of Portland as a carefree, hipster-artist’s paradise.