2016 – Underground USA

 

UNDERGROUND USA was a one day public history/arts education event which focused 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 nationaI careers. Five of them – artists Bill Plympton and David Chelsea, and writers Norman Solomon, Richard Gehr and Maurice Isserman –  returned to Portland to taIk about these earIy experiences. They were joined by Patrick Rosenkranz, author of Rebel Visions: The Underground Comix Revolution 1963-1975, who gave the keynote address. OCI co-founder Anne Richardson provided additional insights about the two papers.

I. Planning the event

In the early stages, the OCI approached former editor of The Nation, Victor Navasky, as potential keynote speaker (click here to see the letter from August 15, 2005click here to see the follow-up letter from October 7, 2015, click here for a promo package compiled for Navasky that presumably accompanied the October letter, and click here for a letter from June 29, 2016), along with an evening lecture by Portlandia stars Carrie Brownstein and and Fred Armisen (click here to see the initial draft of the program and click here to see the initial draft of the guiding questions as pdf documents). Another person approached was Mikal Gilmore, at that time at the Rolling Stone (click here to see the letter). For some reasons, these lectures did not take place.

The OCI contacted Portland State Foundation board member Ross Lienhart, requesting feedback about using PSU rooms, and inquiring about a potential future partnership with PSU to explore Oregon film history further (Click here to see the original document along with a different version and a third version of the letter. It is unclear which document was used to make the contact).

OCI signed a grant agreement form with the Kinsman Foundation on July 7, 2016 (click here to see the archived document). In this agreement, the OCI announced the intent to look into hiring a professional administrator. This did not happen, presumably for financial reasons.

As the final line-up was shaping up, a working list of former contributors to the Portland Scribe still showed Mary Wells and Michael Wells as participating guests, while Matt Groening was listed, but not as guest (click here to see the archived list). Groening showed up upon Richard Gehr’s invitation to join Gehr in a conversation on stage.

The Oregon Historical Society put on the exhibit Comic City, U.S.A. in conjunction with the Underground USA conference. Click here for a blog coverage of the event, and click here to see a first concept of the exhibition, dated 20 November 2015. Click here to read the original press release.

II. The event

Anne Richardson blogged about the event:

“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.

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. 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.”

 

III. Event coverage in the media

IV. Publications

  • The OCI is currently preparing two print publications about Underground USA. Both books are tentatively slated for a 2026 publication date to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the event.