This Saturday, October 15th, I will be taking part in UNDERGROUND USA, a one-day symposium examining Portland’s radical past through the history of its underground newspapers, The Willamette Bridge and The Portland Scribe. Or, to quote the copy from the event’s official website:
UNDERGROUND USA is a one day public history/arts education event focusing on one chapter of Oregon print cartooning history.
Two underground papers, the Willamette Bridge (1968-1971) and the Portland Scribe (1972-1978), provided first jobs for a generation of artists and writers who went on to have national careers. Oregon Cartoon Institute invited five of them – artists Bill Plympton and David Chelsea, and writers Norman Solomon, Richard Gehr and Maurice Isserman – to return to Portland to taIk about these early experiences.
Among the questions they will address: What makes Portland so comics and cartooning friendly?
Two time Oscar nominee Bill Plympton drew covers for the Scribe. Political journalist Norman Solomon wrote for it. Historian Maurice Isserman edited it. Graphic novelist David Chelsea illustrated it. Village Voice columnist Richard Gehr sold it on the street.
Patrick Rosenkranz, the author of Rebel Visions: The Underground Comix Revolution 1963-1975, is our keynote speaker. He too worked for the Scribe.
What was the underground press?
Who read it?
Who wrote it?
What role did underground comics play in creating the sensibility of the underground press?
Was Portland’s current affinity for comics/cartooning already in evidence during this forgotten period of regional media making?
Through talks, presentations, onstage conversations and one gigantic culminating panel discussion, UNDERGROUND USA participants will explore these and other questions.
UNDERGROUND USA is open to the general public. It is presented by Oregon Cartoon Institute in partnership with UO Comics & Cartooning Studies and PSU Comic Studies, and with support from Oregon Historical Society.
David Chelsea is reading: War in the Neighborhood
by Seth Tobocman
In addition to appearing on a panel with the other guests, I will be presenting a talk on illustration and comics at the Scribe. My own earliest published comics were drawn for the paper, mostly featuring this character, Piggola, who was kind of a Wonder Warthog without superpowers:
Also featured was Joe Cat, an average dad type, with his wife Bodice:
And Reuben Rabbit, a bland and vacuous announcer:
The Willamette Bridge had carried syndicated strips by Underground greats like R. Crumb and Gilbert Shelton, but comics were a decidedly lesser element at the Scribe, as opposed to illustrations, which accompanied most articles. The Scribe was very upfront about its radical politics, and comics with their air of bourgeois frivolity were ever on editorial thin ice. One-shot strips were more common than continuing series, which never lasted long. Every year or so, a new series would be announced, only to be inconspicuously snuffed a few issues later. The Gilbert Street Fool’s Retreat, a strip about a commune drawn by an artist known only as Christopher, lasted two installments:
Prolific artist Bob Rini was a mainstay of the Scribe, contributing dozens of illustrations and one-shot comics, but his serialized strip FETUSMAN was also quickly aborted:
The most famous artist to work at the Scribe was future animation star Bill Plympton, whose strip The Tube appeared both in the Scribe and New York’s Soho Weekly News- naturally, for only a few installments:
My own experience was typical. I was a staff illustrator, patiently accepting every editorial assignment drawing heroic freedom fighters and evil CIA agents, while lobbying for a continuing strip of my own. Finally, the editors gave in, and I was even allowed to draw a cover announcing it:
About seven weeks later, my Piggola strip was voted out of existence at a collective meeting. I quit the paper, and soon moved to New York, where I became a full-time illustrator and didn’t draw comics again for nearly a decade.
Some of the one-shot strips which did pass editorial muster give an idea of the tenor of the times. As early as 1972, there was a sense that the glory days of the New Left had passed, as in this strip by Richard Weholt:
Women cartoonists were very much in the minority back then, but the Scribe gave them space. This strip by the otherwise unknown Billie Miracle strikes a blow for feminism and against the capitalist patriarchy by providing a recipe for homemade tampons made from industrial sponges:
Thanks to Fred Nemo of Black Hat Bookstore for letting me photograph his Scribe archive!
UNDERGROUND USA takes place this Saturday, October 15, 2016
from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM at
70 Northwest Couch Street, Portland, OR 97209
Students (any kind, we won’t ask): $30
Members of Oregon Historical Society: $30
Members of Northwest History Network: $30
Members of Know Your City: $30
Members of IPRC (Independent Publishing Resource Center): $30
Members of KBOO: $30
Persons affiliated with PCM (Portland Community Media): $30
Members of OCTE (Oregon Council of Teachers of English): $30
Attendees of the 2015 and/or 2016 Oregon Film History Invitational: $30
My Portland Scribe slide show takes place from 1:00 PM – 1:40 PM
I will be participating with the other guests, Patrick Rosenkranz, Bill Plympton, Norman Solomon, Maurice Isserman and Richard Gehr, in a panel discussion from 2:45 PM – 3:45 PM
Read my answers to three questions from UNDERGROUND USA organizer Anne Richardson here.