[Ex-editor’s note: you'll have to excuse me; I took a copy of Kerouac’s On the Road with me on the plane to Portland. All apologies.]
I first saw Jack’s hair a half-block away soon after getting off the light rail in downtown Portland. It had to be Jack Ohman, with that hair. I called out “Jack” and sure enough he turned around. I knew then it was going to be a good convention, the first person I run into being the host and all. He was walking back to his office to make a few last minute phone calls before everyone arrived, and was as calm as a fly fisherman in an Oregon stream. Everything was fine he said, all set. Jack was the perfect host for this convention, as was Portland, low-key and cheap and yet full of wit and talent and beer.
I had already fallen in love with Portland within minutes of getting off the plane. Looking for a way into the city from the airport I braced to burn through most of my cash catching a taxi or bus and instead found the MAX, a light rail system that took me from here to there for $2.30 and left my precious beer money intact. While a stunning success for urban planning and public transportation, MAX could also be fickle, like a tattooed girlfriend who only showed up when she wanted. She left us stranded more than once drunk and stumbling on a street corner at 1 a.m., but what can I say, I was still crazy about her.
Everywhere you looked, there was public art as well. On the side of the MAX, at the light rail stations, on the street corners and in between, public art, and more importantly public art that didn’t suck. This town was full of artists. It was Ted, or maybe Matt Bors, who later told me why it was so cheap to live in Portland, and how that attracted musicians and artists and kids looking for kicks and their next angry fix, and how nothing ever really got better so it stayed cheap and full of creativity. In a way, the town was just what I expected, funky, smart and beat.
We met on and off and around the campus of Portland State University. Though it was the middle of June, the weather was pure northwest, cool and damp and fall-like to anyone from any other part of the country. I felt like I was back in school. Every time I cut across the campus looking for the student union, I found the Faber College theme from Animal House playing in my head. That night they held the opening reception at the Simon Benson House, an Arts-and-Crafts style mansion that on most days played the part of the university’s visitor’s center.
Afterwards, as we usually do, we all found a good restaurant and took over, pushing tables end to end the length of the floor and ordering gaily from the menu. We were cartoonists, flush with the first buzz of the evening and excited to see everyone again. Later, although everyone warned us not to, we ended up at the Cheerful Tortoise, a college dive that had never seen better days. It reeked of French fries, Nietzsche and spilled beer from a semester ago; in other words, it was perfect.
PART 2So this was the new model for us, convention-wise: We stayed just off campus and met in the Student Union several blocks away, walking past a long line of Portland’s famous streetcarts, sidewalk food huts with seemingly every style of global cuisine that made giving up our usual luncheons with speakers so much the easier. Mark Fiore kicked things off the next morning with an extensive update on his battle with Apple and überguru Steve Jobs over his rejected-then-accepted iPhone App. (Turns out Steve didn’t call Mark a liar, as online rumor stipulated, and, in fact, in the video clip Mark played, Steve referred to him as “a nice enough guy.”) Mark wasn’t willing to rest on the win though, and said he was already planning an updated version of his app — as should we. “We need to go beyond ‘how do I show my cartoons’ to ‘how can I make this more interactive’ ... to providing more items to sell to the customers you already have, and figuring other ways to make it pay.” Questions came up about the possibilities of an AAEC app. Rex Babin thought it an excellent idea but said, “the challenge for us is to have a value-added element that goes beyond just showing cartoons.” The kicker though, was after all was said and done, the fight won and Mark’s App approved, Mark admitted, “I don’t even have an iPhone ... I should probably get one.”
The next panel folded right into this idea of new tech and new business models for the struggling cartoonist. Mike Keefe talked about his project with Tim Menees, sardonica.com, a satirical online blog full of news parodies, illustrations, charts and “whatever makes us laugh.” Ted Rall told how, when he couldn’t find any news organization willing to fund him on a trip back to Afghanistan, he was able to use the online site Kickstarter to raise $26,000 through small donations. I joked that a lot of the people who gave money probably hoped Ted wouldn’t come back. Then our new best buddies, Caroline Dijckmeester and Tjeerd Royaards of VJMovement, whom we had met the night before, laid out their pitch. VJMovement originally began as an outlet for frustrated journalists and videographers who thought a rich diversity of reporting was being lost due to network thinking. They soon expanded their vision and have since set up a platform for cartoons and a new way for cartoonists to publish online.
“We wanted to create a platform that was a level playing field for professional videographers and cartoonists to tell the stories they thought should be told,” said Caroline. Their submission method was also different: cartoonists send in a sketch that is then voted on in short order by a panel of editors and the public. If approved, the cartoonist then does a final version and — get this — actually gets paid: 150 euros (US$180) for exclusive use, and 75 euros for first publication and exclusive use for 14 days. (If you’re interested, you can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org).
I said before that Portland was full of artists, and a lot of them seemed to be cartoonists. In addition to Jack and perpetually exhausted co-host Matt Bors, who slept maybe 4 hours the whole week, there was Shannon (Too Much Coffee Man) Wheeler, Meredith (Octopus Pie) Gran and Jeff (“no, the other one”) Parker, who made up the Living Locally, Cartooning Nationally panel. Parker was part of a local artist collective that had gone in together and gotten shared office space, a practice he highly recommended to cut down on costs, help keep you focused, and get you out of the house. Meredith likened the “new model” for cartoonists to one musicians have taken up: bands now often offer their music for free — or what people are willing to pay — online but then offer another package of stuff, like complete albums, for money. As a web cartoonist, she offers her strips for free, but then later sells books containing all the strips. “Every element needs to be constantly worked at, though ... promoted, blogged, pushed,” she concluded. “It’s difficult, but it can be done.”
That afternoon we headed out into the city. Ted and I went to Powell’s City of Books early, before that evening’s “Powellapalooza” reading. I'd heard about Powell’s for years and figured the ‘greatest bookstore in the world’ claim made by so many was an exaggeration. OK, I was wrong. Five stories and one city block, it really was all that. I found a copy of an out-of-print volume I’ve been looking for for 15 years, and they had an English to Dari translation book Ted needed for his upcoming to trip to northern Afghanistan — not special ordered, but stocked and sitting on the shelf. I heard later Cullum had to make three trips to bring all the books he bought there back to the hotel.
We met Mark Fiore at a pub down the street that specialized in locally brewed high-alcohol beers and prepared ourselves for the evening. The crowd for that night’s reading by a dozen AAEC cartoonists was standing room only and enthusiastic. Afterwards we went on a pub crawl that turned into more of pub bounce, as we went back and forth between two spots in Portland’s Pearl District. As we walked into the first place, the hostess asked, “How many in your party?” I said, “75.” She said, “No really.” “Really,” I replied.
PART3For the last few conventions we’ve had a set of visitors from the Middle East via the State Dept. This time the visiting cartoonists (and one publisher) were from Iraq and Iran, mostly. In addition to getting to see their work (Iraqi animators use Flash too, by the way), and comparing freedoms of the press (“we know our limits and what lines can not be crossed,” said several), we were able to ask about life in Baghdad and beyond. “Oil should have been a source of income for the Iraqi people,” said publisher Ayyed Mahdi, “but no.” Asked about the population’s growing frustration that, seven years after the American invasion there is still only electricity for a few unreliable hours each week, Ayyed said, “War was not a good thing, but change was. The U.S. brought us democracy, but took away our power.” He laughed, sadly.
Jeff Danziger put in a rare appearance at this year’s confab. Interviewed by Jack Ohman, Jeff dropped tidbits about his life and career, such as, during the time he taught high school he was Frank Miller’s English teacher (yeah, that Frank Miller), and how being a 2nd Lieutenant and Army translator in Viet Nam in the 1970s taught him never to trust the government, or any human organization for that matter. How his first break was doing a syndicated comic strip, and how glad he was when it was over (“Comic strips are awful ... a large heavy weight tied around your neck.”); how he got to travel a lot (“Traveling gives you a lot of authority on a subject.”); and, his thoughts on human nature (“People do the right thing. But only after they try everything else.”).
Jeff held forth on technique (“I don’t think enough people draw the weather, make it an element of their cartoon.”), saving work (“Sometimes you do a cartoon and the idea dies while you’re doing it ... but you can save some of the work to use in a different piece.”), and the only things editors are concerned about (“No sex. No Israel.”).
Jack finally recalled a Danziger quip when the two were being interviewed by a reporter at the Phoenix convention in 1996. A reporter asked, “How do you handle hate groups?" to which Jack blurted out, “Arizona IS a hate group.” “Yeah,” replied Jeff, “but it’s a dry hate.”
Later, Ted and I caught the MAX across the river, looking for an old record store I’d heard about. After getting off at the wrong stop and wandering around for a bit, we still hadn’t found it. Ted wanted to turn back. I looked at him incredulously. “Are you telling me you’ve successfully navigated central Asia but you’re going to let a public transit system in an American city defeat you?” He demurred and we soldiered on — the German beer pub we found a block later certainly helped; did I mention there are a lot of brew pubs in Portland? — and found the record store. Back at the hotel, we got ready for the Cartoonists Rights Reception that night at a downtown restaurant.
By now my feet and ankles were swollen. We walked everywhere, and it seemed Portland was uphill both ways. As I got to the lobby, I found myself standing with Bruce Plante and Cristian Fleming, both of whom had been my companions the night before on the death march home across several miles of downtown Portland at 2 a.m. We looked at each other and immediately got a cab.
The CRN reception began with music by Iranian band Shabava, and continued with local comedian Dwight Slade and our own Joel Pett, who wondered how “beaver state” would translate to our guests from the Middle East. Only the AAEC could pull off the tricky balance of dick jokes and giving Courage in Cartooning Awards to an Iranian who was forced into exile because of his work, and the wife of a Sri Lankan cartoonist who is currently missing.Afterwards we found another pub, this one serving beer made from squash, and still later stocked up on supplies for the hospitality suite. Turns out the hotel restaurant had gone out of business the week before we arrived, so we commandeered its abandoned bar for the occasion. (Easy to see why it closed, as it looked like it hadn’t changed since the early ‘70s ... one cartoonist remarked that he felt like he was on The Poseidon Adventure when we walked into the place.) I thought our party an apt metaphor for our profession, as we resurrected and reinvented a dead establishment. Or so I hoped.
By Saturday I was beat, pounded flat by Portland, thinking to myself I really need to start training for these things. The meetings were the meetings, amusing and yet productive, but I’ll let others report on what happened there. While a large group caught the R. Crumb exhibit at the nearby Portland Museum of Art, I caught a much-needed nap.
While much talk has been made that the days of meeting in 4-star hotels are long over, we at least capped that sentiment off in style, as our closing banquet was held at The Nines, a swanky place that seemed to have added another 5-stars, what with its glass and marble staircases and long glowing atriums that seemed right out of an early William Gibson novel. At dinner our speaker was Mike McKeever, an urban planner who had lived in both Portland and Sacramento, Rex’s current hometown. At first I wondered why a guy from a city council was giving us the keynote address, but it soon became clear as he told how, a few years before when a regional plan to reign in runaway development and uncontrolled sprawl was in danger of being defeated by special interests, it was a cartoon by Rex Babin that helped turn public opinion against the developers and save the blueprint. If that wasn’t a reaffirmation of what we do, I don’t know what is.As per tradition, acceptance speeches for awards were pithy and short, with Anita Austin, AAEC’s long-suffering webmistress thanking everyone for her Ink Bottle Award with “Thank You! Use your keywords!” and Rob Rogers, upon receiving this year’s Golden Spike, saying “I always knew pedophilia would pay off one day.” Grateful host Jack Ohman offered his appreciation to everyone whose hard work efforts had gone into this year’s convention. He related how working closely with Rex Babin had cemented their long friendship. “Rex, you’re like a brother to me. I never want to speak to you again,” he deadpanned. Finally, Rex closed out with “I wanted to thank everyone for being good sports. This has been a challenging year and a different kind of convention, and I’m very very appreciative as we wing our way through the ‘new model.’” He then announced that the president’s party that night would be an open bar and got a standing ovation.