“I feel really lucky to have this location,” Jason Leivian admits, adding that students, office workers, city officials, and lawyers all come in to buy comics. A young woman with green-rimmed glasses walks in Floating World Comics and says, “I had no idea you were here.” In July of 2006, Leivian opened downtown Portland’s only comics shop.
In 2005 my girlfriend brought me to her house. She lived in a shared house with two young artists from Phoenix; Leivian was at his computer working on music. The shelves of his room lined with books, art books, comic books. His demeanor and expression were gentle and open. In the basement they had set up a performance space with chairs for the audience. He played guitar in a rock band and he was busy, but we did play. And when I fell out of touch with my girlfriend, she said it was okay to come by the house to play music, but I didn’t.
I didn’t see Leivian again until the the fall of 2006. His picture in a local paper alongside an article about his comic book store. I never imagined it, but this fit: there he was surrounded by books. I went down to visit him that day; and two years later, he’s going strong. “I think of my shop more like having the vibe of a record store, even though we mostly sell paper and books,” Leivian explains. “It’s like a combination of three stores: we carry mainstream books for Wednesday customers, indie and alternative like Reading Frenzy, and a good selection of international art books and magazines.”
He stands behind the glass case. His laptop open and his music collection shuffling minimalist techno and 60s and 70s funk. And there’s a Beck song. “I got my first comic book at the base exchange in Phoenix.” explains, “My dad was in the airforce. The base exchange is like the commissary or the supermarket-–where military people could go out to. The comic was in the magazine rack, with all the People Magazines and all that stuff. I picked up a ROM comic book.”
Leivian moved to Portland as an artist and musician, and he created something more than a retail outlet. “One thing I accomplished with the shop in the first year that I’m really happy with is becoming a part of the Portland art’s community. The artist in me wanted to be a part of that somehow. I didn’t know how that was going to happen-–like as a creator? and now it turns out, I’m like a curator.” Being next door to the Portland Art Center and a string of small galleries that host art openings every first Thursday, there’s a new crowd every month being introduced to comic art. “Some of my first Thursday shows got national coverage. This current show: Gabriel Bá . . . the Al Columbia show . . . the ROM Spaceknight-–we did a tribute and had a bunch of different artists do their rendition of ROM. It was a fund raiser for Bill Mantlo who wrote all the ROM comics. He was paralyzed in a hit and run accident over ten years ago; he’s on life support, and he will be for the rest of his life.”
The words triggered something in me, and Leivian confirmed my reflection, “Yeah, we thought about that: Bill Mantlo created a cyborg hero, and he’s connected to a life support machine. I was like seven when I got my first comic,” Leivian reflects back on a silver cyborg who looked really cool and fought these ugly aliens who invaded earth. “This kinda scary science fiction comic that I really liked. And then from there, I remember getting comics at the Circle K down the street . . . but buying comics in those places, you’d miss an issue and that was a crazy feeling; it’s like, oh my god I missed an issue; what am I going to do? and so I busted out the yellow pages, and looked up comics and that led me to comics stores – where you go to find your back issues and stuff.”
“I liked to read and I like to draw, so comics inspired me to draw my own,” Leivian muses, “It must’ve been the coolness of the characters-–discovering the characters that we’re very familiar with now–-characters like Spider-man, Wolverine, Batman . . . imagine discovering them for the first time, and not being familiar with their stories and powers – and there was no Internet, so you had to piece it together from the pages of these books.”
With the Internet handy, Leivian has pieced together an entirely different kind of publication. He calls it Diamond Comics Newspaper. He showed it to me proudly at the First Thursday show in October. I bought a copy for three dollars–-that’s the asking price-–but he leaves them in cafes and bookshops around town like treasure buried in newsprint. “That’s a lot of fun. That’s where a lot of my passion is right now,” he says and smiles. “It’s a great way to connect with visual artists all over the world, just through email. They can email me their hi-res files, and they don’t have to ship artwork back and forth or anything.” Leivian explains, “It started as a book project with Brett at Topshelf. He had asked me to put together a zine of local avant-garde artists because he was impressed with the First Thursday shows that I had done here, and he felt like I had a connection with some of the new artists that were coming up.”
There’s five guys milling about the store and a few come up to the cash register with their books. Leivian knows his regular customers and I step back and admire how pleasant this feels. These guys love their comic books and it’s just okay to share that. When we have another moment to chat, he confirms, “That’s part of the amazing luck that I’ve had in the couple years of having this store-–just finding all these artists out there that nobody knows about.” The Internet can unearth unknown talents, and puts it simply, “I’ll email ‘em, and then it’s a brief email telling them about the project, and I’ll probably link to my Website so they can see that I’m legitimate, and usually that’s enough-–like if they’re not too busy with other stuff, they’re more than happy to share their art and be part of the next issue.”
“Eventually I hope to do an art magazine. I like Rojo Magazine-–this really cool art magazine from Barcelona. There’s no text; it’s just graphic design and photography.” Leivian shows me a stack of portfolios, all Xeroxed from his global image mining. I enthuse over this and he shares his vision to publish collections of comic art, say of all the pictures of ROM-–he has a portfolio full of cyborgs by illustrators from around the world. “Publishing is what I’ll be doing more of in 2009. We’re going to be publishing our first comic this December; it’s called The Caterer. It’s by Jeff Lint, this really bizarre, reclusive science-fiction writer. He did nine issues of this comic called The Caterer in the 70s for Pearl Comics Group . . . I’m going to do another print run. I’m going to remaster the color. The artwork is really weird. It looks like it’s kinda collaged together from old comics.”
The comic book described by Alan Moore as “The Holy Barnacle of Failure” presents its reader with simple instructions: The Caterer Code. “You can be The Caterer-–or at least a matter for serious concern in your neighborhood–-by following Jack Marsden’s code of dense glee and ascended dereliction. Resignation isn’t as innocuous as you seem to think. 1.) Carry out every activity in such a way as to covertly draw attention to your chin. 2.) Cradle a potato like a child, then give it to a policeman. 3.) When ordering a drink, add under your breath: ‘But you didn’t hear it from me.'” This list goes on and on, but the book’s cover states it plainly enough: “TRY AND TRY TO JUSTIFY . . . THE CATERER” A brand of humor last seen in the pages of Flaming Carrot–one that the world was not ready for in the 70s–-reappears courtesy of Floating World Comics.
“This is a dream project,” he says. Comics are like that.