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• A Portland studio is in demand as comics love comes back into fashion

(news photo)


Kieron Dwyer works on drawings at Periscope, a downtown collective of comics artists, writers and illustrators.


If they drew their own noses there’d be a vast variety, from little pixie snub noses to honking great eggplant noses, but they would be down.

Noses down and working.

The 20 or so comic book artists at the collective studio Periscope are very busy these days in their fifth-floor downtown office (they’re in that building with the spinning clock, opposite the food carts on Southwest Fifth Avenue).

In 2002, when the group formed under the name Mercury Studio, there were just nine artists, working on comics and occasional commercial projects. Now the phone keeps on ringing.

Past requests include an art director wanting 40 storyboards drawn overnight for an ad campaign; newspapers wanting their cover stories illustrated; and puppet maker Michael Curry wanting help designing floats and costumes for a parade at a Hello Kitty theme park in Japan.

A Periscope artist, Colleen Coover, has been selected to do the badge art for next week’s Stumptown Comics Fest (Sept. 29 and Sept. 30) — an honor indeed, since a record 100 out-of-town exhibitors are heading to Portland, a comics town.

“Comics are back in fashion as a way to communicate ideas,” says Steve Lieber, at 40 one of Periscope’s older generation. (For now he also has the highest profile of the group, since he illustrated “Whiteout,” Greg Rucka’s Antarctic adventure book, which comes out as a movie next summer. Triple fan-boy points: Lieber has seen the star Kate Beckinsale in the flesh.)

“It was common in the 1940s and then went away,” he says. “Comics are a great way to grab eyeballs. We gave over lives and marriages to do this, and now the rest of the world has realized it, too.”

Evidence sits on either side of him. In one corner Ron Randall, who has drawn for DC Comics and Marvel Comics, sits drawing the story of the Greek god Psyche, one in a series of myths and legends textbooks he’s drawn for Lerner Books.

“Textbook publishers have discovered the graphic novel thing,” Randall says. “The format is an economically viable and accessible way to get this material in front of kids.”

The story’s the thing

Across the room two young artists, Ron Chan and Dylan Meconis, both 24, are illustrating a short story by Sara Ryan, who is a novelist, a young-adult librarian for Multnomah County, and Lieber’s wife. Ryan has presided over the fastest-growing segment of the library system, graphic novels.

Chan is one of five graduates of the Savannah College of Art and Design at Periscope. Everyone seems to work with an open laptop adjacent to their drawing board, switching back and forth between paper and liquid crystal display, but Chan is typical of the younger generation. He points out a car in the panel he’s working on. He didn’t draw it. Rather, he got a 3-D image of a car from Google SketchUp, a free program that lets anyone sample objects, rotate and resize them, and then drop them into a picture.

“Cars are very detailed, it’s easier to not draw them,” Chan says with a shrug. “Comics are more about the storytelling than the drawing. This is a huge time saver.”

Meconis made her name in Web comics and has a graphic novel out, “Wire Mothers: Harry Harlow and the Science of Love,” about experiments with monkeys. Another is in progress, called “Family Man.”

“It’s about a young theology student in Germany in 1768 — not necessarily a great audience grabber,” she says with a laugh. “But there will be werewolves.”

Lieber’s interpretation of the name Periscope is this: “There’s this massive clustering of talent just below the waterline, with just this one thing sticking up.”

Everyone there is rightly proud that Periscope has taken a place next to similar outfits around the country, such as Deep6 in Brooklyn, N.Y., Gaijin Studios in Atlanta and Big Time Attic in Minneapolis.

Comics aren’t all on paper

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