Oregon’s Been a Comics Capital for Longer Than You Think (Like, Waaaay Longer)

Oregon Historical Society’s new exhibit Comic City, USA showcases our state's talent in the ninth art. This timeline proves Oregonians have been cranking out some of the best for more than 100 years.

By Lisa Dunn August 11, 2016

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“The Fixer” cover art by Joe Sacco

It’s no secret that Oregon is a hotbed of cartoon-and-comic talent. The Beaver State calls itself home to the likes of juggernauts Dark Horse and Milkfed, Oni Press and Top Shelf Productions, not to mention individuals such as David Walker, the man behind Marvel’s Power Man and Iron Fist series, and Erika Moen of Oh Joy Sex Toy fame.

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Character from Barflyze by Basil Wolverton

But Oregon’s graphic history stretches far beyond the late 1980s revolution that brought powerhouse Dark Horse to the forefront of indie comics publishing. In fact, our history of comics and cartoon artists stretches back well over a century, with Oregon artists creating everything from political cartoons to now-famous comic adaptations of movies such as Star Wars and Alien.

And now the Oregon Historical Society is celebrating the varied (and little-known) history in its new exhibition Comic City, USA. Highlighting 15 cartoonists, comic artists and writers, the comprehensive (and partially interactive) exhibition opens August 12 and runs through January 31. For proof of our centuries’ old comic tradition, see our handy timeline below.

1889–1912 Born in Silverton, Oregon in 1867, Homer Davenport becomes Oregon’s first famous cartoonist when he starts working for William Randolph Hearst—yes, the publishing magnate—in the early 1890s as a political cartoonist. Coming to prominence in the age of muck-raking and yellow journalism, Davenport’s famed cartoons supposedly inspire the New York State Assembly’s attempt to pass an anti-cartoon bill in 1897. The bill fails, and Davenport continues working in political cartooning—including a comic featuring Uncle Sam and Teddy Roosevelt that sways the 1904 election in Roosevelt’s favor.

1938–2000 If you’ve always wanted to jump into a pool of gold coins like Scrooge McDuck, you’ve got Oregon native Carl Banks to thank for that. The cartoonist and comic artist is hired by Disney in 1938 and Western Publishing in 1942 and works on Donald Duck and DuckTales comics for almost seven decades. In that time, he invents the likes of Duckburg and the disgustingly rich, salty uncle we all love to hate.

1986 Without fanfare, a legend is born in Milwaukie. Mike Richardson establishes Dark Horse Comics and releases two titles: Dark Horse Presents and Boris the Bear. Two years later, the publishing house releases its first comic adaptation of a film, Alien, which becomes a surprise hit. Later, Dark Horse will publish the likes of Hellboy, a story initially turned down by DC, which will later become a critically-acclaimed movie franchise. Today it is the largest independent comic publisher in existence.

1987 The decadence-soaked ‘80s are winding down, and Portland native Bill Plympton is nominated for an Oscar—a freakin’ Oscar, you guys—for his animated short Your Face. But that’s only the beginning for the Portland State graduate, whose distinct style is immediately recognizable. He’ll go on to work on documentaries and feature films (including the 2004 cult classic Hair High.) Oh, and he’ll even animate the couch gag for a little-known show by a fellow local, Matt Groening.

1993 Of course, you can’t discuss political commentary without mentioning cartooning, but Malta-born University of Oregon graduate Joe Sacco takes it to the next level with his graphic account Palestine: A Nation Occupied. Leaning on satire to talk about human rights abuses, refugee camps and every day life for Palestinians and Israelis, Sacco illustrates (literally!) the region in the 1990s better than any text-only news story. His work is so well-received that it jumpstarts Portland-based Sacco’s graphic reportage career.

1995 Who didn’t love reading the comics section of the newspaper as a kid? The warm-hearted, often-cheesy humor of everything from Peanuts to Marmaduke was enough to make a kid forget about a botched math test. And one nationally syndicated cartoon, Stone Soup, gets its start right here in Oregon. First published in the Eugene Register-Guard as Sister City, Stone Soup, a story about a single mother and her two daughters, goes national in 1995 and still publishes every Sunday.

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Stone Soup by Jan Eliot

1997 Then-Dark Horse editor Bob Schreck, along with Joe Nozemack, decides to start a press that publishes graphic novels and comics that they’d want to read, and Portland-based Oni Press is born. Oni who? Oh, just a little press that has published titles like Scott Pilgrim and Wasteland. Schreck has since moved on, but Nozemack is still running the powerhouse press in Northeast Portland.

2014 A planet that doubles as a prison for non-compliant women in a dystopian world? Image Comics publishes the first Bitch Planet, an ongoing monthly series written by Portland’s own Kelly Sue DeConnick—one half of beloved publisher Milkfed. Image describes the feminist sci-fi series as “Margaret Atwood meets Inglourious Basterds” and we don’t disagree.

2015 Continuing the tradition of using comics as cultural criticism, David Walker releases the first volume of his graphic novel series Shaft. The series is sharp, funny, action-packed—and offers up a necessary critical deconstruction of the Blaxploitation genre.

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