UNDERGROUND USA was a one day public history/arts education event which focused on one chapter of Oregon print cartooning history. It took place on October 15, 2016 at the White Stag Building in Portland. The original website is still accessible here.

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. The 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 talk about these early experiences.

The Portland they knew was a blue collar city rapidly decaying forward, transforming itself under the vision of a young activist mayor. Tom McCall Park was a freeway, Pioneer Courthouse Square was a parking lot, and the river smelled. KBOO-FM started during this period. Penny Allen made her first underground feature, and WiII Vinton jumped from the underground to the Oscars.

The conference was created in partnership with the University of Oregon Comics & Cartooning Studies and PSU Comics Studies, and with support from Oregon Historical Society. Additional support from Ross Lienhart, McMenamins, Kinsman Foundation, Miller Foundation, and the fiscal sponsorship of Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission.

KBOO hosted a radio show in anticipation of the event. Listen to the show here.

Planning the conference

Underground USA was by far the most ambitious Oregon Cartoon Institute project. It supported and complemented the Oregon Historical Society’s June 2016 exhibit Comic City, USA on the history of print cartooning in Oregon. You can see the OHS press release here and access the original concept here.

Originally, the OCI approached Victor Navasky as the keynote speaker. Anne Richardson answered the question “Why Navasky” in this handout.

The talks

Six writers and artists weighed in on Portland’s current status as a comics capital, and talked about their own origins in Portland’s underground press.

Keynote: Patrick Rosenkranz. The author of Rebel Visions: The Underground Comics Revolution 1963-1975, opened the symposium by discussing Carl Barks and Basil Wolverton, and the impact these two Oregon artists had on underground comics, the graphic novel, and the comic book art form overall. Watch his talk here.

David Chelsea drew illustrations for the Scribe. Watch his talk about the visual vocabulary of the underground press, and gives a guided tour of his own work here.

Maurice Isserman (top) and Normal Solomon (bottom). Maurice lead an onstage conversation with fellow Scribe alumn, Norman Solomon, about the politics and culture which produced the community which created Portland’s underground press. Watch their conversation here.

Anne Richardson, OCI co-founder and mastermind behind Underground USA discussed the cultural geography of Portland’s underground press in relation to Robert Johnston’s theory of Portland’s Progressive Era radical middle class. Watch her talk here.

Richard Gehr engages in a conversation with surprise guest Matt Groening. Gehr intended to talk about his own development as a music critic, beginning with the music he listened to during the underground era, when he sold the Portland Scribe (25 cents a copy!). Watch Gehr and Groening here.

Watch the panel discussion that also included Bill Plympton here. Pictured kneeling is surprise guest Walt Curtis.