"I've attended too many shows where it was just a glorified flea market, just people selling longboxes of books," says Lowell. "We wanted to focus on the creative aspect of it and the joy of comics."

It was also important to Lowell that the show not be in some dimly lit, fluorescent hotel ballroom with recirculated air — the standard digs for conventions. The solution was the Winton Scott-designed Ocean Gateway Terminal, the slim finger at the end of Exchange Street that extends into Casco Bay.

Now in its fourth year, the Maine Comics Arts Festival spans two days in Portland. On Friday, May 19, the Portland Public Library hosts workshops and performances, including a presentation from the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund on the history of comic censorship. On Saturday, the show moves to the Ocean Gateway, with creators signing and selling at tables throughout the entrance building and upper level of the terminal. Panels and workshops on self-publishing, webcomics, and comic scripting fill the lower level. The library programs on Saturday are free for all, and admission on Sunday is $5 for adults. Kids get into the festival for free.

Over the last three years, the show has been a mélange of artists and writers promoting their self-published or small-press titles. There's no massive booth for Marvel or DC, and no company execs like Joe Quesada and Geoff Johns, which may disappoint the capes-and-tights set. Instead of a showcase for the big two publishers, the guest list is a blueprint of non-traditional paths to success in the industry.

Perhaps the MECAF title with the most unique story is Womanthology, an anthology that showcases the work of more than 140 female comic creators. The brainchild of Cape Elizabeth's Renae De Liz, Womanthology was financed on Kickstarter, the crowd-funding website where fans are able to pledge money for projects they'd like to see completed. The project was a runaway success — the creators initially asked for $25,000 to cover production costs and take a bit of the burden off publisher IDW, and ended up raising more than $100,000.

An independent book focusing on the work of women and published with the help of fans, Womanthology is a prime example of the part of the comic business that this festival highlights. Along with De Liz, a number of contributors to the anthology will be in attendance.

In an industry where DC recently dropped to its female representation on its creative teams to just 1 percent (from an already low 12 percent), another thorn in comics' side is a reputation as a boys' club. A survey from DC Comics following its reboot is telling; while there are no hard numbers available on how many women read comics on the whole, only 7 percent of the survey respondents both in-store and online were female. Highly sexualized images of women in comics may appeal to young male readers, but it's easy to see why they can alienate women from the medium.

NO NE'ER-DO-WELL HERE Kate Beaton, speaking at MeCAF, has amassed critical acclaim and strong commercial success.

Despite these enduring problems, there are many women who read and create comics. This is particularly true as you get farther away from the superhero mainstream, where bountiful busts and skintight costumes seem to be required. At the indie-heavy MECAF, more than 50 of the creative guests are female. One of the marquee guests is author and artist Kate Beaton, creator of the critically acclaimed Hark, a Vagrant!

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