My contribution to “Counterpublics of Underground Comix”

This is my presentation for the MLA 2016 roundtable on “Counterpublics of Underground Comix,” which was organized by Leah Misemer and Margaret Galvan. It was a fantastic panel and I was proud to be part of it. I only had 5 to 7 minutes, so I had to leave out a lot of material — for example, my delightful discovery that “Pluto’s” in Omaha the Cat Dancer is based on the real-life Goofy’s.

Here is the accompanying slide presentation:

I have way too much material, so please cut me off if I go over time. This paper is something I’m mostly interested in for personal reasons, but I would be interested in developing it into a longer paper if anyone knows of a home for it. And I’m grateful to Leah and Maggie for giving me the opportunity to research this topic, because this is a personal project for me. I grew up in Minneapolis and the events I’m going to talk about literally shaped the city I lived in, yet I would never have known about them if I hadn’t done the research.

So when we think of underground comics or counterpublics, we typically think of larger cities on one coast or the other. New York or San Francisco or Montreal. We would not typically think of a midsized Midwestern city like Minneapolis as the center of a major countercultural scene or as a center of underground comics production. When we think about Minnesooooo-da, we often think of it as a quaint, provincial place. SLIDE 1 We associate it with things like Fargo and Garrison Keillor and lutefisk and yaah, you betcha. And yet in this city alternative comics played a small but significant role in constructing a local counterpublic.

Now Minneapolis has historically been a very cultured city. It’s the home of Prince and Louise Erdrich and Neil Gaiman and the Walker Art Center. SLIDE 2 And in the ‘80s, downtown Minneapolis was a happening place. Or alternately, a wretched hive of scum and villainy. It was the sort of place Tom Waits sings about, and in fact there are two different Tom Waits songs about Minneapolis. And in particular, there was one particular stretch of Hennepin Avenue that was considered “an island of tawdry naughtiness in the center of squeaky-clean downtown Minneapolis.”the center of Minneapolis’s urban cultural and subcultural scene was a specific block of Hennepin Avenue known as Block E SLIDE 3. Businesses on Block E included a dive bar called Moby Dick’s where you could get a whale of a drink, two adult theaters, a flophouse hotel, and two locations of a newsstand called Shinders that sold both porn and comic books. There was also a  According to one article, it was “an island of tawdry naughtiness in the center of squeaky-clean downtown Minneapolis.” In 1987, it accounted for more than 1 percent of all the police calls in the entire city. But it was also a center of the local countercultural scene. It included an art gallery called Rifle Sport and a music venue called Goofy’s Upper Deck, and it was one of the city’s major hangouts for punks. SLIDE 4 Nonetheless, Block E was seen as such an embarrassment to the city that in 1988 the city council purchased all the buildings on the block and demolished them. There was an official celebration where a city council member sang a song that went “”Pack up all your crime and porn / Block of scorn, be reborn / Bye bye Block E.” SLIDE 5 They hoped to find new tenants for it, but that didn’t happen, so Block E was a parking lot for over a decade and then a shopping mall SLIDE 6 and currently it’s a practice facility for the Minnesota Timberwolves. SLIDE 7 So there’s nothing left of the Block E of the ‘70s and ‘80s. It represents a moment in Minneapolis history which is now forgotten except by the people who personally experienced it. The only reason I know any of this history is because during and after all these events, Reed Waller and Kate Worley wrote about them in a comic book called Omaha the Cat Dancer. SLIDE 8

Now Omaha was published from 1981 to 2012, after the underground comic era, though it was originally published by a notable underground publisher, Kitchen Sink. It’s what would normally be called a furry comic, but the creators resisted that label and called it a funny animal comic instead. It’s about the adventures of an exotic dancer, and besides the fact that all the characters are animals, it’s a fairly realistic comic that could be categorized as either crime or romance or slice-of-life. But like Block E, Omaha acquired sort of a poor reputation due to its explicit treatment of sex. It includes explicit sex scenes in almost every issue, and it’s been described as an example of sex-positive feminism, because it shows that the characters enjoy sex and that sex is a healthy component of their lives. Of course because of this Omaha, again like Block E, was frequently the target of censorship and repression. In 1986 the owner of a comic book store called Friendly Frank’s was arrested for selling obscene comics and Omaha was one of the comics in question, and this was the case that led to the creation of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

But Omaha not only appeals to the sort of people who would have patronized Block E, the planned destruction of Block E is the central event in the comic’s plot. Omaha takes place in Mipple City which is a loosely fictionalized version of Minneapolis, and in Mipple City there’s a place called Block A which is the center of the local counter-culture, it’s where Omaha works and where her musician friends perform. It also becomes the central battleground in a culture war. Local Puritanical elements, led by the state senator Bonner, start a “Campaign for Decency” to get Block A demolished, allegedly because it’s immoral and it atracts crime – which, again, was exactly why Block E was demolished in real life. But Waller and Worley also suggest that the campaign to demolish Block A is politically motivated, because the local power brokers want to use the site for their own purposes. SLIDE – PAGE 28 OF OMAHA #6 The catch, of course, is that Bonner himself frequents strip clubs and has a bondage fetish, so his decency campaign is completely hypocritical. And the hypocrisy of puritanical attitudes about sex is a common theme of Omaha – like, there’s a scene in a later issue where Omaha moves to a small town and goes to work in an office and is so infuriated by the constant sexual harassment she receives, that she quits and goes to work at the local strip club instead. SLIDE 9 SLIDE 10 SLIDE 11

So the interesting thing is the way these events play out. In real life as far as I can tell, there was no serious organized opposition to the demolition of Block A. The main objection to demolishing Block E was that all the riff-raff would just go elsewhere. But in Omaha, the main character’s boyfriend Chuck Tabey and their friend Jerry Davidson manage to save Block A by organizing public opposition to the demolition project and mustering enough city council votes to defeat it. And not only that, as part of the fallout from the Block A scandal, Senator Bonner is murdered and the mayor of Mipple City and his cronies are convicted of crimes including the murder of a different person, so basically the good guys win, that is, the liberal and sex-positive elements of Mipple City triumph over the conservative and repressive elements,  which, again, is the opposite of what happened in real life. What Waller and Worley were doing here was imagining a utopian future for Minneapolis, a counterfactual series of events where things played out differently from in real life. So again, the takeaway here is that alternative comics can be used as a tool for community-building and for the creation of counterpublics in all sorts of contexts, that their scope is not limited to San Francisco and New York, and also that alternative comics can be a tool for recording and memorializing local histories that would otherwise be forgotten.

One reply on “My contribution to “Counterpublics of Underground Comix””

What an interesting paper. I kinda love how the authors of Omaha mirrored the exerience of Block E in their comic…and I liked, too, just learning about Minneapolis. Also, your paper is engaging and absolutely devoid of typical academese…which is great b/c it always makes me want to gag.

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