CONVERSATIONS around the communal tables at Beast, the popular restaurant off NE Killingsworth Street, can range from theatrical to secretive. Yet none had been immortalized in ink until last year, when a 35-year-old comic book writer named Matt Fraction struck up a conversation with the Intel engineer sitting next to him. As they both devoured Beast’s meaty fare, the engineer expounded on computers and corporate security. Soon, the pair’s idle chatter found an echo in Invincible Iron Man, a Marvel Comics title that Fraction scripts.

As any Robert Downey Jr. fan recalls, the Iron Man saga revolves around the ass-kicking adventures of billionaire Tony Stark. Serious comics lovers also know that Fraction won a 2009 Eisner Award, the comics equivalent of a Pulitzer, for the series. In Fraction’s work, the fictional corporate culture of military-tech firm Stark Industries now bears an uncanny resemblance to a certain Hillsboro-centered computer chip giant. Says Fraction of his inspiration: “It’s random encounters like that that turn into something special.”

Fraction is only one of many comic book pros finding their muse in Portland. Over the past decade, the industry’s creative talent has flooded into the city. By one estimate, Portland is now home to more than 160 working comics creators—nearly as many as New York, the industry’s traditional home, and nearly twice as many as Los Angeles. This month, the Stumptown Comics Fest, which began in a modest church in 2004, kicks off its ninth year, sprawling across 30,000 square feet at the Oregon Convention Center. The event has emerged as a major date on the comics world’s calendar—and a showcase for a rapidly growing creative hub far from Gotham City.

Nationally, comic books take in almost $700 million a year. And while mom-and-pop comic book stores struggle, digital sales banked $25 million in 2011, a record. Hollywood, meanwhile, not only thrives on superheroes—The Dark Knight Rises, The Avengers, and The Amazing Spider-Man all promise to rake in cash in 2012—but scours the comics for readymade script ideas.

New York remains home to industry titans DC and Marvel. But more and more, those companies—which control Superman, Batman, X-Men, Spider-Man, and countless other characters—rely on Portland-based talent. Fraction’s wife, Kelly Sue DeConnick, for example, has written for both. The five-time Eisner winner Brian Michael Bendis, who teaches a well-regarded comics class at Portland State, authored Marvel’s New Avengers series and consulted on the forthcoming film. Artist Chris Samnee, a 32-year-old whose portfolio already includes work on well-known Marvel and DC properties, moved to Portland from St. Louis in 2010. Longtime North Portland resident Greg Rucka has penned everything from Batman to the X-Men to his own hard-boiled crime series, Stumptown.

Mike Richardson, founder of Milwaukie’s Dark Horse Comics, witnessed comics’ local explosion firsthand. His company began in 1986 as a showcase for Portland’s then-rare professional comics creators. “I don’t think it’s arrogant to say Dark Horse is responsible for the community here,” Richardson says. “Most people would agree with that.”

Dark Horse’s decision—revolutionary at the time—to allow artists and writers to own their own creations (instead of surrendering rights to publishers) helped it attract A-list contributors, some of whom became Portlanders. Oni Press, which recently burst into movie theaters with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, launched in 1997, followed by Top Shelf and Tugboat Press.

Beyond the artist-friendly contracting, Portland’s laid-back and collaborative spirit adds to its magnetism. “It’s slower paced than many cities,” says graphic novelist Jonathan Case. “There’s more time to invest in relationships.”

"You sit at your desk with the quiet in your head. It helps to have other humans around." –Jonathan Case, on Portland’s Comics Community

Case (who drew this story’s illustration) got his start by showing his portfolio at 2005’s Stumptown Festival. He now works alongside Samnee at Periscope Studio, an artists’ collective in downtown Portland. Periscope’s dozens of artists share resources while working on separate projects. “It’s a friendly business,” adds Case, who says Periscope connections helped him publish two books.

Within Portland’s cultural sphere, artsier, independently published creators like innovative comics journalist Joe Sacco and graphic novelist Craig Thompson tend to receive more acclaim. But Marvel and DC still command 77 percent of the comics market. Much of those companies’ business stems from their never-ending reinvention of superheroes that, in some cases, date back to before World War II. The trick, according to Fraction, is to not let these well-worn characters become boring. And for that, Portland’s signature quirk is making it a player in the comics craft’s most lucrative work.

“Portland is like being stuck on a plane with someone really fascinating,” says Fraction. “Would you rather be stuck on the plane with someone with nothing to say? Or with someone you can learn from?”