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Sarah Mirk takes a novel approach to little-known state events
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Sarah Mirk, history buff and lead producer of the 10-volume graphic novel set

It's hard to believe that Sarah Mirk is just 25. She has a pretty good grasp of Oregon's history for such a young person.


A graphic grasp of history, at least.

Mirk is the author of "Oregon History Comics," a 10-volume set of small graphic books about little-known incidents in the state's 153-year history.

The little history comics -- each about 4-by-5 inches, totaling 400 pages -- are making big changes in Mirk's life. In March, she hosted a standing-room-only release party at Powell's City of Books. She's on a three-month leave from her job as a reporter for the alt-weekly Portland Mercury, to research a second book about non-traditional relationships.

And April 28-29, Mirk speaks at the ninth annual Stumptown Comics Fest at the Oregon Convention Center (info: www.stumptowncomics.com). She also will lead a panel discussion on politics and comics.

Mirk calls the Stumptown Comics event the best comics convention in the country, because it caters to small, independent, do-it-yourself graphic artists, while bigger conventions are geared toward mainstream graphic novels and artwork.

Jason Levian, owner of Floating World Comics in Northwest Portland, thinks Portland is a "rich comics community," and Stumptown Comics Fest is special, because it is "really still all about the comics and creators."

Levian helped schedule presenters for the comics fest, and said he was impressed with the research Mirk did to produce "Oregon History Comics."

Mirk's panel discussion will be on the "Future of History." It will focus on how history will be taught in the future, a subject close to her heart.

"A lot of times people see history as boring, but everyone is interested in the place where they live, so history needs to be relevant and interesting to the audiences who seek it out," Mirk says.

She sees the potential for non-fiction graphic novels and comic books to play a big role in teaching history to young people, who are more likely to get excited if they can pick up and read a comic with images that help history hit home.

Readers will understand "that when they pick up a comic, it is just a piece of a larger story; it is more of a personal story from diverse sources," Mirk says. "People think history is the truth, but it is really a story told from different perspectives."

There is a whole world out there of fact-based comics, Mirk says. "Comics are a nice medium; they are cheap and relatively easy to make," she says.

Mirk also will moderate a panel called "Politics and Comics," featuring political cartoonists, including Matt Bors, a nationally syndicated editorial cartoonist and editor in Portland. Bors just found out that he has been named a 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist for his political cartoons, and this year he won the Herblock Prize and the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi Award for his editorial cartooning.

Bors, an editor at www.CartoonMovement.com, says he will discuss "comics journalism" at the Stumptown event, specifically a project he is editing on Haiti with Haitian journalists and cartoonists.

Mirk says panelists also will talk about their creative process and "how to consume media and make sense of it."

Oregon's history in comics

Although this is Mirk's first year as a presenter at Stumptown Comics Fest, she tabled at the event last year, selling "Lone Fir Cemetery," the first volume of the "Oregon History Comics" set.

It was hard, she says, sitting at the table with something she had put so much love and care into, and having people walk by, look at the comic and then walk away.

"But then three women with clipboards made my day when they said, 'We'll take 10.' They were from the Multnomah County Library, and they agreed they'd take 10 more of every issue," Mirk says.

County librarians are "really great" about buying 'zines, she adds, noting that if they didn't do this, they would "be missing out on local artists and writers and missing out on national discourse."

This year, Mirk notes, she will finally be able to sell all 10 comics, something she has been promising for two years.

Her "Oregon History Comics" are short comics about virtually unknown or marginalized stories from Oregon's history, drawn by 10 local artists. She wrote scripts for all 10 volumes, and illustrated Lone Fir Cemetery.

The comics were published by Portland's popular Dill Pickle Club. Director Marc Moscato says the volunteer-driven club is dedicated to "create nontraditional and interactive learning environments where all forms of knowledge are valued and made readily accessible."

Included in the collection are stories about the X-Ray Café, Portland's Black Panther community, the history of Chinatown, the inundation of Celilo Falls and the devastating 1948 Vanport flood.

Mirk did all the research for the 10 volumes, but estimates she had about 140 collaborators, including artists, store owners, residents she was able to interview and people who read and fact-checked scripts and hosted events.

"I like that form of collaboration, because I was able to let go of the possessiveness," she says. "The upside is that these are all original works; the downside is it took two years."

This year, Mirk will sit behind a table for one day at the comics fest, selling the 10-comic boxed set, which are also available at Powell's Books.

But she has vowed to allow herself time to walk around and look at other people's works.

"I feel honored to be asked to be a presenter," Mirk says. "It is a pretty big deal to be involved."

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