Hark!, which collects the best of Beaton's webcomic of the same name, draws heavily on historical figures and classic literature. They're then married with filthy language, absurdity, and non-sequiturs. In one comic, Dracula's female companions, though immortal, discuss their desire to vote and own property. In another, the Bronte sisters go "dude-watching." The book has been a commercial success, taking the top spot on the New York Times' graphic novel bestseller list last October and staying in the top ten through the end of the year. It's also a critical darling; Time magazine called it "the wittiest book of the year" in 2011.

Beaton isn't just an example of the myriad female creators at MECAF — she's also one of the many artists whose success in comics has come largely on the back of digital media and do-it-yourself publishing. After working as a cartoonist for her college newspaper, Beaton started loading her work onto Livejournal and her own personal website in 2007. With no big publishing house backing her, the artist self-published Never Learn Anything From History, which went on to win a Doug Wright Award for Best Emerging Talent in 2009. Though she's now been published and has her work in prestigious periodicals like The New Yorker, Beaton still identifies with her online roots.

Other creators at the show have also turned online popularity into sales success. Kate Leth, an artist who had contributed to titles like Image's Strange Talent of Luther Strode and IDW's Locke and Key, rose to prominence thanks to her popular webcomic Kate or Die. Attendees Francis Sanders and David Griffin are the creators of Corked, a webcomic about the wine industry. It's far too niche a subject to succeed in a traditional comic shop, but working online has allowed the creators to build an audience and even produce tie-in wines with comic labels.

GOING FOR THE NICHE MARKET Kate Leth has expanded from online to print.

Online businesses have democratized self-publishing, as well. A trip through the guest list reveals that a number of aspiring artists have used Lulu.com, Createspace, or other printing services to publish their work. Rather than needing to get picked up by a big publisher or pay thousands to a vanity press, creators can print their books in small runs or on demand.

Along with losing creators and fans to these self-distributed works, a concern among publishers is the lack of a new group of fans to follow them. Children just aren't reading single issues of comics, where sales are dominated by adult shoppers. Of the kids who do read comics, many drop them when they get older. Because of this, there's a clear line of demarcation between "kids' books" (like Marvel's kid-specific Adventures line) and everything else. Mainstream comics keep getting darker and grittier, aging along with their audience.

Despite this, MECAF is always flooded with kids, who, Lowell estimates make up more than half of the show's thousand-plus attendees. Programming for the show includes two kids' workshops — "From Concept to Comic" with Phineas and Ferb illustrator John Green, First Second Books designer Colleen Venable, and Broxo creator Zack Giallongo; and "Kids Cartooning" with Jeff Pert, author of Down East Books' new Cartoons from Maine. Also, Raina Telgemeier, winner of the Maine Student Book Award, will be doing a presentation on her graphic novel Smile.

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