Left to right: cartoonist Monte Wolverton, comics historian Patrick Rosenkranz, cartoonist/graphic novelist David Chelsea, historian Maurice Isserman, cartoonist/filmmaker Bill Plympton, cartoonist/television showman Matt Groening, critic Richard Gehr, political journalist Norman Solomon. In front, Portland street poet laureate Walt Curtis.
“There never was, and there never will be, another day like this.” Walt Curtis
There had been storm warnings. Ben Saunders and three UO Comics Studies students got on the 5:00 AM bus to Portland anyway. By 4:00 PM, when they dispersed back onto the windy wet streets to head back to Eugene, city workers were cleaning up fallen trees and downed electrical lines. The storm had come and gone. Inside the White Stag Auditorium, we had been oblivious.
Thanks to Gus Frederick, we have photo testimony of the speakers who held us spellbound.
Keynote speaker Patrick Rosenkranz spoke about pre-underground cartoonists Carl Barks (1901-2000) and Basil Wolverton (1909-1978). Using hundreds of slides, Patrick walked us through their Southern Oregon origin stories, and then their careers, in such detail that Sheldon Renan, himself a cartoonist, came back to me midway through the talk to exclaim “This is wonderful!”
I was shocked to hear Basil Wolverton was in print as a comics writer/artist as early as 1929. The dawn of the medium!
During Q & A, Bill Plympton asked Monte Wolverton if his father ever supplemented his extraordinary imagination with stimulants. Monte’s answer was in the negative: “He liked the occasional martini. That’s about it.”
Historian Maurice Isserman and political journalist Norman Solomon spoke about the urgency which drove underground journalism. Casualty rates were increasing, and the Viet Nam War seemed to have no end. In Portland, a group of draft eligible (i.e. male) activists, including Maurice and Norman, and non draft eligible (i.e. female) activists, including Brooke Jacobson, came together and taught themselves to be journalists. The Scribe’s emphasis on community building, food coops, bike paths and yoga classes took place within an environment where young people were scared for their lives.
The look of the underground press – combining photos, illustration, cartoons and clip art – was cheerfully opportunistic. The last minute all nighters during which the pages were laid out meant everyone had to compromise, and collaborate, in order to meet the deadlines. Despite all that, or perhaps because of it, the Scribe was heavily visual.
Next Anne Richardson (that is, me) began a talk about the way Scribe’s physical location fit into Portland’s history of independent media. When my laptop crashed, I switched to a topic which didn’t require maps. I spoke about two possible “undergrounds” which may have influenced the thinking behind Sheldon Renan’s An Introduction To The American Underground Film.
Lunch: Sheldon and I went to Floyd’s. Lots of people went to the Golden Horse.
After lunch, David Chelsea walked us through his years as a Scribe illustrator and cartoonist. David is one of the figures who inspired the founding of Oregon Cartoon Institute, so it was gratifying to see him behind the mike.
David’s first paid gig as an artist was at the Scribe. Twelve years old! He continued for six formative years. The following panels are from a comic David drew for the Scribe during his high school years at Metropolitan Learning Center.
After David moved to New York, his work appeared regularly in the New York Times and in the New York Observer. Not the first Oregon cartoonist to become part of our national media landscape, but perhaps the first whose career began so young.
Midway through David’s discussion, which included examples of work by fellow Scribe cartoonists Bill Plympton and Bob Rini, a surprise guest stepped through the door.
Q: If Maurice Isserman edited the Scribe, Norman Solomon wrote for it, Bill Plympton drew covers for it, and David Chelsea illustrated it, who sold it?
A: Future Village Voice columnist Richard Gehr and future media supernova Matt Groening.
Both Richard and Matt have worked as music critics (in alt weeklies, not at the Scribe) , so I asked them to talk about the role music played in their Portland adolescence. They went beyond this to talk about their overall immersion in pop, and Portland as a pop machine.
They remembered not just what they heard, but where they heard it (or bought it). Used bookstores, record stores, television stations’ kiddie shows, boy scout meetings, bad neighborhoods, good neighborhoods, they went everywhere. Portland’s downtown was dying, and underpopulated, so there was this sense of liberation. Freedom to move. I remember this! They watched movies, and they made movies.
They discussed hawking papers, sneaking into theaters, thrilling to celebrity sightings (Ken Kesey), and experimenting with mass media (16mm film) while still in their teens — all of which matches, point by point, with the Portland childhood described by Mel Blanc, who sold papers, snuck into theaters, was thrilled by celebrity sightings (Jack Benny), and performed on radio at age 15.
The symposium ended with a seven member panel discussion, moderated by Richard Gehr. At this point, the panelists had questions for each other. A free for all! They had come to the symposium from all over – three from New York, two from California, two from Portland. They didn’t necessarily know each other. They hadn’t all worked together. Portland’s underground press was active long enough – 1968 to 1978 – so their paths didn’t necessarily cross. In many ways, UNDERGROUND USA was a reunion of colleagues who had never met. At the end of the discussion, poet Walt Curtis came forward to talk about his friendship with Norman Solomon, and their joint founding of Out Of The Ashes Press.
There was poetic justice to Walt’s benediction. Besides being a poet and painter in his own right, Walt represents a through line to the first Oregon literary historian, Alfred Powers, his professor at PSU. Walt has served as guide to region-centric explorations of Oregon cultural, artistic and literary identity ever since. Of course he had to come give his blessing! Every single UNDERGROUND USA panelist was a writer.
Matt & Walt: What becomes two legends most?
If you missed UNDERGROUND USA, the companion exhibit hangs in the Light Court Commons (ground floor) of the White Stag Building, 70 NW Couch, Portland. It will be up throughout November.
Many thanks to Ross Lienhart for underwriting the exhibit, Eric Hillerns for designing it, Kohel Haver and Dennis Nyback for supplying timely help. Many thanks to Fred Nemo for access to his private Scribe archive.
As for the symposium, many thanks to Gretchen Harmon for heading up the hospitality division, to Charlotte Rubin for her bookkeeping, to Gus Frederick and Sheldon Renan for their photography, and to Khris Soden for his web design expertise. Many thanks to University of Oregon’s Ben Saunders, Karen Munro, Tess Peterson, Cris Moss, Kate Wagle, Alexander Milshtein, Lauren Amaro, and Caitlyn.
Many thanks to PSU’s Susan Kirtley, who was away attending the four day Cartoon Crossroads Columbus festival in Ohio, but was present with us in spirit.
UNDERGROUND USA is a public history/arts education event made possible in part by a grant from the Kinsman Foundation and by a grant from the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation. It is presented by Oregon Cartoon Institute in partnership with UO Comics & Cartooning Studies and PSU Comic Studies, with support from Oregon Historical Society and McMenamins.
Comic City USA, the first exhibit to look at Oregon print cartooning history, is at Oregon Historical Society, 1200 SW Park Avenue, through Jan. 31, 2017.
“People who read them when they first came out remember the initial impact — like getting whacked in the head with a two by four.” Patrick Rosenkranz, on underground comics