If Superman had to give a State of the Comics address, it would be a pretty somber affair. Comic sales continue to drop year after year, he'd tell you, and critically lauded books are canceled every month. The audience is aging without young fans coming in to take their place. There's a paucity of women and minorities in comics, among both characters and creators. Digital comics are driving comic shops out of business. There's some positive news out there (Marvel and Disney aren't upset that The Avengers movie is making gobs of cash), but the overall outlook is pretty grim.
The people selling and reading comics aren't faring much better in popular perception. Look at The Simpsons' obese, abrasive, socially inept Comic Book Guy. Look at Comic Book Men, a show on AMC that opened with the cast discussing which comic heroines they'd like to bed. God help you, look at CBS's Big Bang Theory, a sitcom that takes a superficial, reductive view of the most stereotypical parts of geek culture. Despite the popularity of comic-book properties like the long-running Smallville and surprise success The Walking Dead on TV, and of superhero flicks in the theater, comic books and comic fans continue to be the court jesters of ascendant geek culture.
So maybe Superman's assessment of the state of traditional superhero comics wouldn't be very sunny. But with a bit of digging, it isn't hard to discover the creative, inclusive, kid-friendly world of comics (and comic fans) that exists just below the surface. The Maine Comics Arts Festival, a yearly independent and small-press focused show in Portland, isn't the show for every comic fan, but it may be a look at the future of the industry.
The person behind MECAF is Rick Lowell, who co-owns Casablanca Comics with his wife Laura O'Meara. Casablanca Comics, with locations in both Windham and Portland, is a mainstay in the Maine comics scene. The shop is instantly recognizable to Portland residents as one of the independent business anchors at 151 Middle Street, along with Videoport and Bull Moose Music. The stores, which just celebrated their 25th anniversary, are the opposite of The Simpsons Android's Dungeon. They're clean. Well-lit. Pleasant. And, unlike the derisive Comic Book Guy, the people behind the counter seem to actually want to help customers.
MAINE HUMOR Yep, it's in comic-book form too.
When Lowell started planning the first Maine Comics Arts Festival in 2009, making an event that showcased a different side of the industry was crucial. Casablanca Comics shops have long supported books from independent presses like Top Cow and Image, local creators, and comics for kids along with traditional superhero fare. It's an approach that helped the shops weather that devastating comics market crash in the '90s, and a big part of their appeal. As the industry again suffers from a shrinking audience, there's good reason to focus a show on some of the brighter spots in the business. While superheroes, the big publishers, and bins and bins of back issues for collectors have their place, nearby conventions like New Hampshire's Granite State Comicon and the Boston Comicon already have that piece of the market covered. There's even competition in southern Maine now, with Coast City Comics' convention entering its second year this November.