The Art of the Comic 

The Boise Library Comic Arts Festival is ascendent in its seventh year

click to enlarge Dana Simpson is the creator of two widely syndicated comics.

Dana Simpson

Dana Simpson is the creator of two widely syndicated comics.

While working at the Boise Library, a colleague recommended to Neil Gaiman's graphic novel series Sandman, reigniting Josh Shapel's passion for the medium. Since then, the library has expanded its collection of comics and graphic novels from a couple hundred volumes to thousands, and for seven years, Shapel has been an organizer of the Boise Library Comic Arts Festival, one of the Gem State's most popular comic conventions—a forum that has grown with the library's comic collection into a stage for artists, zines, cosplay and more.

"The barrier to entry is lower than for a lot of other media. More people are getting into comics because of the big studio entries, but more people are discovering memoirs that are amazing, science fiction and fantasy stuff that might appeal to their specific tastes," Shapel said.

This year, the festival will take over Jack's Urban Meeting Place Saturday-Sunday, Aug. 24-25. There will be scores of individual events and artist tables, and Boise Weekly spoke with three participating artists to get a sense of the scope of the festival and the craft.

Dana Simpson

Big conventions, like those in Salt Lake City and San Diego, attract huge numbers of artists and fans. For Santa Barbara, California-based Dana Simpson, it became too much.

"I've started doing more of these smaller conventions. I got tired of the big conventions because they're big and loud, and it's easy to feel lost. I like these cons where you can interact with people," she said.

Simpson is the creator of Ozy and Millie, which she produced from 1997-2008. She started drawing and writing the strip for the Evergreen State College newspaper, Cooper Point Journal, and the comic would eventually be syndicated nationally. More recently, she has been the cartoonist behind Phoebe and Her Unicorn, which now appears in hundreds of newspapers around the country, as well as in translation in Germany and Russia.

Her work explores the inner life of a young girl and her imaginary friend, and has updated, 21st-century motifs: Phoebe's unicorn, Marigold Heavenly Nostrils, got her name through a randomized unicorn name generator Simpson found online, and in-comic, Marigold can broadcast WiFi from her horn and send text messages. The work does, however, harken back to one of Simpson's favorite movies, The Last Unicorn, and has been compared to Calvin and Hobbes—a strip that she said was influential for her own development as an artist.

"I think any cartoonist should be happy to be compared to Calvin and Hobbes. I think it's the greatest strip of the last 30 years, and I do see my strip as a feminist response," she said. "I always thought the most interesting character was Calvin's friend, Suzie. What's she like? What would a strip about her be?"

click to enlarge Sarah Mirk is a longtime comics journalist who has committed herself to producing a zine a day in 2019. - SARAH MIRK
  • Sarah Mirk
  • Sarah Mirk is a longtime comics journalist who has committed herself to producing a zine a day in 2019.

Sarah Mirk

Comics are about more than superheroes, and the medium embraces all genres, including memoir, history and journalism. For years, Sarah Mirk has been a leading voice in nonfiction graphic media, but the beginning of her career was the realization that the art she was making for pleasure could also be a job.

"When I started reading comics as a teenager, I remember going to a comics convention and it blew my mind. There were these hundreds of people making comics, and it was so cool," she said.

What started as a childhood exercise in graphic journaling has become her profession. A decade ago, she started a series of graphic histories of the State of Oregon that has proven popular. She has also written for the Portland Mercury, and which she served as online editor for the nonprofit feminism magazine Bitch. She also teaches at Portland State University and has published a number of books, including Sex from Scratch: Making Your Own Relationship Rules, which is now in its second edition.

Mirk is proof that comics aren't just for kids: Her current major projects are a graphic oral history, Guantanamo Voices, which is slated for publication in 2020; and a personal challenge: Write and illustrate a zine every day in 2019 to help her process her own feelings about life, politics, the environment and everything else.

"I'm doing all this work on [Guantanamo Voices], but nobody can see it for a year and a half. I wanted a project that was immediate," she said.

click to enlarge Carter and Ava Heaton at their front yard comics stand - JAKE HEATON
  • Jake Heaton
  • Carter and Ava Heaton at their front yard comics stand

Jake, Ava and Carter Heaton

For the last four years, Carter Heaton has been cutting comics. Compared to other artists who will have booths at this year's festival, that may not seem like a long time—were it not for the fact that he was 5 years old when he started. Soon thereafter, his little sister, Ava, joined him. When their father, Jake, said he would try to get them a table at the Boise Library Comic Arts Festival, they were elated.

"When I saw the announcement this year, I asked the kids to see if that was something they were interested in. They both got really excited about it, so we started down that path. This will be their first adventure," he said.

Last year, the festival thrilled them, and Jake helped them build a kind of lemonade stand from which they could sell their comics out of their front yard, and an Etsy store, where they have sold a few comics. He credits the festival with showing them that the art they were making for fun could someday be part of their occupations.

"I think seeing something like this type of creative outlet being the opportunity to be their job was really eye-opening to them. When we came home from the comic con last year, [Carter] started talking about [not having] to choose the traditional jobs," he said.

Carter's entry to comics has been comic book-based movies—he's a fan of Captain America, and at this year's festival, he plans to dress as Ghost Rider—while Ava's work, starring "Teal Girl," is inspired by her own adventures. Jake said taking up producing comics has had a profound impact on both of them.

"They're thinking about things differently," Jake said. "They're now thinking about ... the next frame in sequential art. They're carrying it from page to page and establishing repeatable designs for the characters. It's been really fun to watch that natural process."

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