Comic book characters are household names. Comic book artists … not so much.

Thanks to blockbuster films about the Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy, millions of people can name dozens of comic book heroes and their backstories. But ask most people (not comic book geeks) who drew the Guardians of the Galaxy characters, and they’d be pretty hard-pressed to name Lewiston native Paul Pelletier as one of the series’ artists.

It’s understandable, then, that Pelletier is a fan of the annual Maine Comics Arts Festival, being held Saturday at the Portland Public Library. The festival is all about the artists and writers – no costume contests, no splashy movie promotions – just 100 or so comics creators sitting at tables, showing their work and talking about it. And selling some of it, too.

The festival was created in 2009 by husband and wife Rick Lowell and Laura O’Meara, owners of Casablanca Comics, with stores in Portland and Windham. The pair has worked for more than 30 years to highlight the art of the comic book and to promote Maine’s growing comic arts scene. About a quarter of the artists at Saturday’s festival will be from Maine, including Pelletier and Rick Parker, known for MTV’s “Beavis and Butt-Head” comics. Maine artists or cartoonists are doing work The New Yorker, Marvel and DC Comics, among others. Other well-known comic artists or cartoonists working in Maine include Portland residents Lincoln Pierce and Sean Murphy. Pierce is the creator of the “Big Nate” comic strips in newspapers around the country, and Murphy has been working lately on “Batman: White Knight” for DC Comics.

“I know comic conventions are doing very well around the country, but very few focus on the art and the artist like this one does,” said Pelletier, 48, who now lives in Topsham and whose other works include “Aquaman,” “Justice League” and “The Flash.” “The variety of artists Rick and Laura have lined up is great, you get to see everything from comic strips to graphic novels to cartoons. It’s really great for the creators.”

THE FOCUS IS ON THE ART

Lowell and O’Meara started the festival in 2009 as a way to bring attention to the artists and writers. They also host a more traditional comics event each fall – the Portland Comic Expo – with cosplay and vendors and the kind of hoopla you get at “comic cons” around the country.

But at Saturday’s festival, the vibe will be quieter, less formal, with comic artists sitting at tables all over the library. Lowell said he hopes the festival reminds people that before the Guardians of the Galaxy or the Avengers were box office idols, they were brought to life by the pencil of an artist.

Topsham artist Paul Pelletier works on comic books starring the Aquaman character, among others, including the Justice League and the Flash. Photo courtesy of Casablanca Comics

“Some people don’t even know where the source of these (movies) is. They talk about comic books sometimes and ask if they’re still being printed,” said Lowell, 55. “We hope to remind people where the stories and characters come from.”

The free festival will also feature some planned events and talks, including an Iron Cartoonist competition where three artists are challenged to draw whatever the audience suggests.

There will also be a panel discussion by four Maine single-panel cartoonists – David Jacobson, John Klossner, Mike Lynch and Bill Woodman – who recently collaborated on the book “Lobster Therapy and Moose Pick-Up Lines.” The book also included cartoons by the late Maine artist Jeff Pert.

The four, whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, Mad Magazine and the Wall Street Journal, will talk about how they got into the business and how they get ideas.

Maine artists who’ve attended other comics festivals are impressed not only with the festival’s focus, but with how attentive Lowell and O’Meara are to each artist or writer.

“Rick and Laura go to every artist’s table, two or three times during the festival, to make sure you have everything,” said Andres Vera Martinez, an illustrator of graphic novels who moved to the Portland area from Brooklyn, New York, a few years ago. “And they work tirelessly the rest of the year for the local (comic artists) community. The first time I came in the store, they said they would sell my stuff. They didn’t even ask what I did.”

A SENSE OF PLACE

Lowell grew up in North Yarmouth in the 1970s, when comic books didn’t necessarily spawn huge action movies. He had an uncle who collected comics, and he began collecting himself in grammar school. He loved superhero comics, but also funny stuff like the “Donald Duck” and “Archie” series.

He was enthralled by the stories, the characters and the art, and he began doing his own drawings. As he got older, he bought and sold comics through the mail and at conventions, and worked in graphic arts as an art director for The Shopping Notes weekly newspaper.

At some point, he decided it would cost him less to sell comics from a store than to pay shipping costs or rent tables at conventions. So, he and O’Meara, who had met in high school, rented a small space off Main Street in Yarmouth and opened in 1987. They moved to Windham after a couple years and opened a Portland location, on Middle Street, in 1995. They recently expanded that location by moving to a larger basement space in the same building formerly occupied the Videoport movie rental store.

“The goal was to create a place where people could find things they couldn’t find elsewhere,” said Lowell.

Today, about 15 percent of Casablanca’s business is vintage comics. The rest includes all the comics coming out weekly, many of which are continuations of series that have been around for years.

While Greater Portland has other comic books stores, Lowell and O’Meara have been in business 31 years and have seen lots of changes in the business and the local comic arts scene.

Back when they started out, a lot of artists from Maine who wanted to work for a big comics company likely had to move to New York or wherever that company was based. Pelletier, for example, moved to Florida around 2001 to work for a comic book company. Before that, he did some work for out-of-state companies, but he had to ship his drawings by mail.

Maarta Laiho, who grew up in the midcoast and lives in Biddeford, is a colorist for comics featuring the Lumberjanes. Photo courtesy of Casablanca Comics

Now, the internet has made it possible for artists, writers and colorists to live and work wherever they want. Maine is a place where a lot of people want to live, with it being (relatively) inexpensive compared to major urban areas and full of beautiful scenery and natural attractions.

“My family and I took a vacation here and just really liked it,” said Martinez, 42, who lives in Cape Elizabeth and is working on the art for an upcoming graphic novel about the Holocaust. “When I was in New York, a lot of illustrators were leaving for less expensive places. Portland’s a great spot, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how the community really embraces artists. I wasn’t expecting that.”

Martinez will be at the festival Saturday. So will Maarta Laiho, who grew up in the midcoast and left the state to study art. Because of the internet, she said could come back to Maine to live and work without missing out on job opportunities. She is the colorist – adding all the color to drawings – for the “Lumberjanes” comics series. She works and lives in Biddeford.

Laiho, 30, says the internet has allowed her to work and live where she wants, and enabled her to network. She said most of the jobs she’s gotten have come because editors found her. And they probably wouldn’t have found her in Maine without the internet.

Laiho likes the fact that Lowell and O’Meara invite so many artists, including many who don’t work for major companies, to give them a chance to show their work and gain fans.

“It’s great to be able to come to a show like this and not be overshadowed, like one might be at some (comic events),” said Laiho. “Maine has an active arts community, and (Lowell and O’Meara) are super supportive.”

Contact Ray Routhier at 791-6454 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: @RayRouthier

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