Posted by Steve Duin, The Oregonian
November 08, 2008
Wordstock -- Portland's annual book festival -- has done a
magnificent job this year with comics and graphic novels, including a
Saturday panel on "Comics and Politics" that featured Alison Bechdel,
Spain Rodriguez and Patrick Rosenkranz.
Moderated by Doug Wolk (Reading Comics), the panel drew a
sitting-room-only crowd of 250 Saturday afternoon, but the panelists
had a hard time generating the debate and fireworks that the audience
expected. Best I could tell, folks came to the Oregon Convention
Center to hear Bechdel, in particular, and the cartoonists discuss
how they would deal with political issues with Barack Obama in the White House.
What they got instead was a few too many Spain Rodriguez stories --
entertaining though they were -- about comix in the '60s, and the
history of EC and MAD magazine. Nobody tried harder than Rosenkranz
to generate some excitement up on the stage, but his efforts were
rarely rewarded with a dynamic exchange.
That said, there were a few marvelous quotes from this extraordinary
collection of cartooning and critical talent, the best five of which are below:
5. My political consciousness was shaped by MAD magazine in the '60s
and '70s when it was really good. Everything I learned about the
world was from MAD. I never even knew the words "reactionary" and
"liberal" until I read MAD magazine. (Alison Bechdel)
4. In my neighborhood growing up as a teenager, it was understood
that the adult world was undeniably corrupt. We were juvenile
delinquents, of course. My criminal career ended when I was 16 and I
was arrested for riding in a stolen car and spent a night in jail. I
didn't steal it, by the way. A friend stole it for my birthday.
3. One of the requirements of the Comics Code was that people in
authority could not be show in an unflattering light. We who were
lying in wait for the birth of the underground comix were sharpening
our knives and knitting the names, like Madame Defarge, in our
shawls. (Spain Rodriguez)
2. I really think the true political impact of my work is just that
I'm showing the lesbian community, these open, happy lesbian
characters living their lives. As much as I like talking about
politics, I think it's just showing people's lives that makes the
most difference to readers. (Alison Bechdel)
1. They (the underground comix cartoonists) were advancing (ah,
deleted) artistic freedom. And all these artist freedoms they have
gained, people are pissing away, handing them over to Homeland
Security for magic beans in the war on terror. (Patrick Rosenkranz)
Here, by the way, are my introductions for the "Comics and Politics" panelists:
Manuel "Spain" Rodriguez grew up in Buffalo, New York, where he
gained a certain sense of style with the Road Vultures Motorcycle
Club, a delightful cadre of kick-ass bikers who offered a free case
of beer to any member who knocked over a pedestrian.
One of the rare artists who's actually produced a mural depicting a
naked Lady Bird Johnson, Spain began drawing for the East Village
Other in 1966, and two years later drew the strip that was
responsible for the Other's first obscenity bust by the Brooklyn
District Attorney's office. The folks at the Other were so proud of
the offending panel, by the way, that they turned it into a
connect-the-dots cover on the next issue of the Other, inviting
readers to submit the completed drawing to Brooklyn DA Aaron Koota.
Rodriguez is best known for creating Trashman, the '60s tabloid
Zodiac Mindwarp, the graphic novel Nightmare Alley, the digital
graphic novel, Dark Hotel, and most recently, Che: A Graphic Biography.
Patrick Rosenkranz is probably the most knowledgeable and easily the
most entertaining authority on the underground comics. His book,
Rebel Visions: The Underground Comix Revolution 1963-1975, was
published by Fantagraphics in 2002, then brought back this year in a
revised and expanded soft-cover edition ... and, I hasten to add, is
the source for my Spain Rodriguez stories. An educator,
photo-journalist and filmmaker, Rosenkranz is also the author of You
Call This Art? a retrospective on Greg Irons, and is currently
working on a book on Canadian underground artist Rand Holmes. In the
'70s, he ran one of the two great head shops in Portland, the Free
Peoples Touching Co., and he is best known in local comix circles,
I'm told, for a letter he wrote that appeared in the second issue of
Arcade magazine in 1975. Patrick had reviewed the first issue of
Arcade, which featured the work of R.Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Bill
Griffith and Gilbert Shelton, and was annoyed that the issue just
wasn't "very funny."
Alison Bechdel is the author of Fun Home, the best graphic novel of
this century and, I'd argue, the last. As I wrote in 2006, Alison's
"graphic memoir about her father's suicide, and his closeted
homosexuality, is brilliant. Her account of their relationship is
extraordinary, and it is illuminated, in devastating fashion, by the
complex and ever-changing interplay of words and pictures."
To hell with subtlety: If you haven't read Fun Home, you are not
allowed to leave the convention center today without buying a copy.
Since 1983, Alison - who lives in Vermont -- has authored and drawn,
"Dykes to Watch Out For," a biweekly comic strip designed, she said,
to "name the unnamed, to depict the undepicted, to make lesbians
visible" ... and, occasionally, hilarious, obnoxious and sexually
obsessed. Those strips have just been collected in the essential
Dykes to Watch Out For by Houghton Mifflin, which will also publish
her next graphic memoir, Love Life: A Case Study.
Moderating this panel on the collision of comics and politics is
Douglas Wolk, the author of Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work
and What They Mean. Wolk is a voice of thoughtful, compelling reason
on comics in the pages of Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Salon
and several blogs, including The Savage Critics, and at 4:30 this
afternoon, he'll be teaching a worship called "Everyone's a Critic."
Like so many of us, he is lucky to call Portland home. Your
moderator, Doug Wolk.