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Portland Cartoonist Rupert Kinnard featured in new documentary

Rupert Kinnard introduced his character the Brown Bomber in 1977, and later, BB’s sidekick Diva Touché Flambé. Kinnard created the first African American LGBTQ characters in comics, and his stories are featured in the new documentary, “No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics.” Throughout his career Kinnard contributed to Willamette Week and he co-founded Just Out. He was also the first Black member of the first LGBTQ-rights umbrella organization in Oregon. Through the Brown Bomber and Diva Touché Flambé, he provided commentary on social issues including gay rights and racial justice. Kinnard joins us to share more about his life and work and the new film that highlights both.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. In 1977, when he was in college, Rupert Kinnard created a cartoon superhero called the Brown Bomber. The Bomber’s friend and partner, Diva Touche Flambee, followed a few years later. They were eventually called the oldest continuing African American gay and lesbian comic characters in the country. Kennard moved to Portland in 1979. He worked for Willamette Week and then helped found ‘Just Out,’ he spent time in San Francisco before coming back to Portland where he continued to work as an artist and an activist. Kinnard is one of the artists featured in the new documentary, ‘No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics,’ which had its world premiere last weekend at the Tribeca Film Festival. It’s going to be screened in Portland, tomorrow afternoon, as part of the Q Doc festival. Rupert Kinnard, welcome to Think Out Loud.

Rupert Kinnard: Hi, thanks for having me.

Miller: Thanks for joining us. When did you first start drawing comics?

Kinnard: I first started drawing comics when I was in grade school in Chicago, and it was a result of my just becoming fascinated with superhero comics, and in the beginning, I eventually learned how to draw Batman and Superman and some of the more popular superheroes at the time. And at a certain while, I decided that I wanted to start creating my own cartoon characters, and so I created a whole slew of characters that were similar to the ones I’d seen in other comic books. But then I started gaining more and more kind of racial awareness and you know, awareness of my own background and my community, and when I looked at the cartoons and the characters I created, I was absolutely bowled away by the fact that I was creating nothing but white comic characters. I was very much influenced by the politics of James Baldwin and Muhammad Ali around that time. So I literally became upset because I felt bamboozled by the world of comics and I didn’t really have a great sense, that I had a rich culture that I can incorporate within my comics.

Miller: As I mentioned, you ended up creating the Brown Bomber, the character, one or two characters that you’re most famous for, soon after you got to college. Can you introduce us to the Brown Bomber?

Kinnard: Oh, when I was younger, I kept a sketchbook, and I  would fill up sketchbooks within the course of three weeks. So I would draw all kinds of characters, then they would come and go. The first character I created was SuperBad, which was a result of my political leanings at that time, I was much more revolutionary and I really wanted SuperBad to represent, you know, the anti-establishment. So he had a giant afro that I always wanted to imagine would strike fear into the hearts of all white people because I was at that point, and eventually with the Muhammad Ali connection with SuperBad, I eventually learned about Joe Louis, a boxer that was very, very influential in the African American Community in the 30′s, and I I felt like I went from one end of the spectrum to the other. First I was just pretty much a very angry Black man and then you know with learning about Joe Louis and the teachings of Martin Luther King, I just wanted to create a gentler, nonviolent superhero. And so I got the opportunity, when I was asked, in 1977 when I was attending Cornell College, if I would do a comic for the editorial page, and I decided that I wanted to incorporate the Brown Bomber into those trips.

Miller: In one of your panels, you say that his superpower is that, unlike most people whose insecurities hang ups and human frailties fester on the inside, the Brown bomber, he wears his on the outside, keeping him pure at heart. That is, that superpower is really different from, you know, being faster than a speeding bullet. What drew you to that? I mean, basically, it’s vulnerability in the service of goodness and kindness.

Kinnard: Well, there were a number of things about the development of the Brown Bomber when they all came, kind of one after the other, and one  was that, I really wanted to reflect a lot of my personality and my things that I loved, things that I, you know, had issues with, I wanted to  portray them through the Brown Bomber, and in doing that, well I eventually realized that I was making the Brown Bomber a more and more unique character.  One of the aspects of his powers is that his weakness is sweet potato pie, because I love sweet potato pie so much that I wanted it to be the Brown Bomber’s weakness if he was in the midst of fighting a super villain or something, if he smells sweet potato pie, he was just powerless and he had to find the source and consume the pie and then go on. So the whole thing, it bit by bit, I just started realizing how unique a character he was, and years later, like one of the things that I really wanted to encourage younger people to do in creating a comic or characters, is to kind of abuse that character with as much of who they are as possible to make the character more unique.

Miller: But the flip side of this is it’s sad to think about being pure of heart, being vulnerable and wearing your heart on your sleeve as if they are super powers. The implication is that for mere mortals, that’s about as out of reach for most of us as flying would be. That’s a sad fact.

Kinnard: It is a sad fact and I actually appreciate you pointing that out because I have found that in the course of interviews people will make an observation that is even new to me, and you know, I never really thought of it, quite that way, but I do know the closer we come to kind of realizing all there is to realize about ourselves, it is like a superpower because I don’t think it’s very much encouraged in our culture, to really know ourselves. I remember when I was growing up, it really seemed like if you were really trying to do any work on yourself, you’d be considered selfish. But there’s just really got to be a great balance between caring about others and then also caring and understanding what makes you tick.

Miller: You called the world that you made with the Brown Bomber and then his eventual partner and friend Diva Touche Flambee, you called it cathartic comics and that’s the word that you use. You use it a number of times over the course of your career, what was cathartic about this world for you?

Kinnard: Oh, absolutely. That’s very clear to me. As an African American, Gay young man, there were, I felt like I was being confronted with so many injustices and so many things to get depressed over. I got to a point where I realized I could vent within my comic strip, and I always wanted this strip to be humorous, so I was forced to take maybe what they would call today, microaggressions, things that I noticed, things that I knew a lot of Black people noticed and a lot of Gay people noticed, that was sticking our craw, you would come across them every once in a while and it was basically, oh my, oh my God, not that perception again, not that way of looking at things. So I really started focusing on events of the day, and they would make me angry and I would decide to figure out, I would try to pluck some of the irony and the hypocrisy out of these things that were happening, and try to present them in a humorous way. Not unlike during the Trump administration. I think it was like the golden era of the one panel editorial comic because I think your really talented editorial cartoonist, they can convey so much within an image and a few words.

Miller: I should point out. So I mean, some of the things you were making art about, you know, AIDS, homophobia, all kinds of politics, police violence. Why do you think it is, that your approach to deal with these issues, these very serious issues, you strove to find a way to find the humor or the irony in them, even as you are making your art?

Kinnard: Yes.

Miller: Do you have a sense for why you were drawn to find the humor in these serious issues?

Kinnard: That has to do with it being cathartic. I wanted to diffuse the way I was taking in information. So if I basically had a mental set up to receive news and know that I want to, I wanted to find a way to apply humor, irony and as I said, hypocrisy, it was a way to survive. It really was. I mean, there’s a certain way I could look at it where I would think, if I didn’t have this outlet, what would the other outlet be and I think it would be at the cost of my own mental health, if I didn’t have it at the time. I really needed it.

Miller: About 25 years ago, you were seriously injured in a car crash. You’ve had to use a wheelchair ever since. You don’t talk about having a disability. You use the term less abled. What’s the distinction for you?

Kinnard: Well, almost any time you self-identify, there are going to be people who say, well that’s not the official term for it. But I was very aware in the beginning of, kind of this life change, with the accident, when I would hear the word disabled, I didn’t relate to it. I said I’m not disabled, it’s not like I’m not able to do things, but I knew there were some things that I wasn’t able to do. So I just thought of it as you know, less able. Some things I could do, some things I couldn’t, I just didn’t want to think of myself as completely, you know, lacking in ability.

Miller: You’ve also called yourself a sub-underground cartoonist. What does that mean?

Kinnard: Well, it’s another term. Sometimes I think in my life I’ve come up with terms just to be able to, you know, proceed with my work. and I was really aware of the general world of comics, that would include Superman, Batman, all the superhero comics, all of the newspaper comics, comic books. And then I remember in the 70s or the 60s, when there was this emergence of the underground comics and then that was a whole other group of, you know, kind of subversive artists who are doing, you know, all kinds of counterculture work. And when I came out with cathartic comics and it was being syndicated in a number of places, I still was very much aware that I never gained enough fame to be considered underground comics. So I created sub-underground where I thought I could reign as king because there weren’t that many people within that category. So, it just kind of gave me a little sense of power to know that I didn’t have to adhere to the idea of being a part of the world of comics or underground comics. But sub-underground comics are the ones that are kind of the least known by the public. That’s why every time someone approaches me and they know about cathartic comics, I just think of them as you know, they’re kind of dwelling in the world of sub underground comics.

Miller: Where you’re the king. Rupert Kinnard, thanks very much for joining us today. I really appreciate it.

Kinnard: Yeah, I really enjoyed this. Thank you.

Miller: Rupert Kinnard is a comic artist and illustrator, an activist, and he is featured in the new documentary. ‘No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics.’ You can see it tomorrow afternoon in Portland as part of the Q Doc festival. Tomorrow on the show, as the Oregon Legislature nears the finish line, we’re gonna hear what they’ve passed, what’s fallen by the wayside and what could happen in the final days of the session. Thanks very much for tuning in to Think Out Loud on OPB and KLCC. I’m Dave Miller. We’ll be back tomorrow.

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Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Kanani Cortez