A Superhero in His Own Right
By Fahad Al-Meraikhi
Written as a part of the Portland Design History Class at PSU
Being a problem solver is a trait every designer should have, and from a young age, Rupert Kinnard had a knack for solving puzzles. Along with drawing and cartooning, these passions were the foundations of what made Kinnard the designer he is today. Born in Chicago, on July the 21st 1954, Kinnard would grow up to become an influential, gay, African American cartoonist and designer. He created award-winning LGBT comics, and worked on Portland publications such as Willamette Week, and Just Out!, one of the earliest, groundbreaking LGBT newspaper in the United States. He became a hero who fights injustice and prejudice with his work. But, like every great superhero, he has an origin story.
Alas, this origin story does not live within the pages of a comic book, but it does exist in the creative mind of the designer and cartoonist himself. On February 1st 2020, I sat down and interviewed Rupert Kinnard to find out how he developed an interest in graphic design, and talk about his impact on the graphic design community and Portland in general during the 1980s.
The Origin Story
Kinnard’s first real relationship with graphic design started during college, where he would create posters and leaflets that spurred people to action, urging them to attend rallies or read articles in alternative newspapers. He even became the college yearbook editor, a position that taught him many elements of graphic design as a whole that would serve him well throughout the next few years of his life. Kinnard’s work on comics would also flourish during that time, as he illustrated comic strips in his college newspaper featuring The Brown Bomber. The Brown Bomber was an iconic character that would be further developed and later featured in Kinnard’s award-winning comic book series, Cathartic Comics, his most well-known, and celebrated work.
Cathartic Comics: BB & The Diva published 1992
Cathartic Comics is a series of editorial comic books featuring The Brown Bomber, a black, gay, fairy superhero that transforms into this superhero persona through a hiccup. The Brown Bomber is best friends with Diva Touché Flambé, a black, ageless, lesbian cosmic spirit. These comics tackle serious social problems regarding people of color and the LGBT community in a light-hearted, comedic fashion while still maintaining the gravity of these issues. The butt of the joke is often the people that are not aware of these social problems and in turn perpetuate them, like Ray and Kay Sediah. Kinnard introduced them as recurring characters who were, “Looking forward to wallowing in the media’s love affair with smug, white, hetero Republican yuppies,” as Mrs. Sediah puts it.
With as few as three panels, Kinnard can deliver insightful messages that pack a punch and dismantle misconceptions or ignorant views of people of color and the LGBT community. This quick and to-the-point messaging is also displayed by Diva Touché Flambé, who is a teacher and master of Slapthology, the very effective and practical technique of clearing someone’s mind of bigoted beliefs by simply slapping it out of them. While the art of Slapthology would be handy in the real world, Kinnard had to use real-world solutions to solve these real-world problems, so he tackled these issues by motivating and compelling people to stand up and fight against ignorance and oppression through his design work.
Cathartic Comics: BB & The Diva published 1992
Kinnard, Design Vigilante
Kinnard’s battle against the villainous trio of racism, sexism and homophobia took off in the 80s, when he truly began to come into his own. In 1979 he moved from Cornell College in Iowa to Portland, ready to start his career. Kinnard was a freelance designer, encouraging action, and designing things like flyers and posters, continuing the crusade against bigotry that he started in college.
One of the key catalysts throughout this time period was his collaboration with others in order to gradually build his craft. He wanted to work with more and more people. While he was working heavily as a freelance graphic designer, his goal, ever since he worked on the college newspaper, was to pursue publication design. This marked his involvement in the purview of the alternative press, as he called it, even though that work was not much in terms of profit.
The Men’s Resource Center pamphlet cover draft and final design. Anti death penalty pamphlet cover draft and final design.
In the 1980s, he began to more accurately understand and implement his own personal philosophy in Portland. Kinnard’s design philosophy is one that is simple and quite utilitarian. He believed solidly in function over form, and much of this can be easily reflected in the work that he began to produce around this time period. Furthermore, Kinnard believed strongly that design should attract the reader to the text rather than the design itself. This philosophy is one that was grounded in practicality, and was likely influenced, at least in part, by his upbringing creating cartoons and drawings. Kinnard is an individual who was able to take his original ideas and dreams from when he was younger and expertly extrapolate them into his modern career. Throughout the 1980s, while he was in Portland, many of the components of his design philosophy were tested.
These tests, though, only allowed for him to continue to build this design philosophy, providing several important areas for improvement that would become apparent here. These areas included those such as communication and technique. Because of this, the 1980s saw perhaps one of the greatest improvements in terms of his overall style.
Freelance work was a prominent money-maker for Kinnard because his other avenues of work were not nearly as lucrative. For starters, Kinnard designed anti-discrimination posters for the city and volunteered at a few local queer newspapers. He did layout for them and designed posters and flyers which bolstered his portfolio, but not his wallet.
The Willamette Week Arc
Kinnard worked for the first LGBT rights organization known as the Portland Town Council, creating newsletters and flyers for them as well. The Northwest Foundation was the LGBT newspaper at this time, and they provided him with a solid foundation to create illustrations and the like for them. He worked as a Production Assistant for Willamette Week, which was one of the jumping off points, as he puts it, for his career. This position is one that would eventually allow for him to become an Associate Art Director at the publication. The position provided him with a solid foundation upon which he would be able to eventually build up his work further, establishing himself as a prominent LGBT advocate for the Portland area. In the 1980s, Portland was already leaning progressive, and this provided Kinnard with a strong environment for him to hone his skills and develop his reputation. In 1984 Kinnard joined the Portland Town Council as the first African American board member, and attended one of the earliest Portland Pride Fairs (later called The Pride Parade).
Working with Willamette Week allowed for Kinnard to work directly with clients, designing advertisements for them, especially in terms of the layout of the ads and where editorial content went. Furthermore, Kinnard created many of the flyers within special sections for advertisers within the paper, and eventually designed the advertising sections. His tenure as Associate Art Director also meant that he designed the main feature story layout as well as things like the calendar listings. Eventually his persistence paid off, and he was able to design covers and illustrations for the publication and others like it.
Much of the work that Kinnard performed for Willamette Week provided experience in terms of layout and design, and he discussed at length the production processes involved in working on publishing before computers. This involved setting selecting fonts, setting line widths, creating scene shading, line work and many other technical components. It was very hands-on, and he stated that he was not thrilled about the advent of desktop publishing that began to occur near the end of the 1980s. There were numerous elements of this new digital process that made his work much more difficult, but he nonetheless learned a great deal and continues to work on a computer to this day.
Many of the contributions that Kinnard provided at Willamette Week would prove to be the traditional style of these issues for many years to come. This came in the form of the highly distinct typefaces and graphical layouts that he brought about for these publications. Kinnard developed a cohesive look across headlines and columns across issues.
There were many queer publications that Kinnard worked with throughout the 1980s as well. His background, as a queer, black, designer, allowed him to easily connect to the designs that he created. He was able to fulfill several different niches that would not have been possible without his contributions. Chief among these was a lack of representation that could be easily observed in Portland. Kinnard mentioned that it was quite challenging to be able to find other designers of color, which comes as no surprise given that African Americans only made up 2.5% of the population in Portland in the 1980s.
This lack of representation was indicative of a more overarching issue within Portland and society during the 1980s. To be sure, the demographic, political, racial and sociological makeup of the country was significantly different than it is today, people of color, as well as those within the LGBT community, were not nearly as accepted as they are today in the creative industry.
Kinnard experienced the negative effects of the lack of diversity in the Portland design community firsthand. After Willamette Week downsized, he found himself among the list of the laid off employees, leaving him without a job. As luck would have it though, a friend of his worked at an advertising agency that was looking for a new designer to add on to their team, and as someone with an art degree and experience in publication design, Kinnard felt confident he would get the job. As the hiring process went on, he only grew more assured as the large pool of possible employees went down to only two people: himself and a white woman, who was fresh out of design school. Ultimately though, he did not get the job. While he acknowledged and considered that perhaps the woman had a portfolio and an approach to design that was more like what they wanted, he couldn’t help but feel that the agency was not interested in the different perspectives that diversity would provide. Whenever he came in for an interview he noticed that there were no people of color in the agency. Kinnard said, “I realize there’s just this disconnect from people who are hiring, you know, I’m sitting in front of them and they want to be able to relate to me like they do everyone who’s like them.”
Experiences such as this one caused him to double down on his commitment to ending discrimination as quickly as possible. Kinnard, much like the superheroes in his comic books, preached messages of togetherness and working collaboratively. His excellent design work ensured that this message was delivered to as many people as possible, thereby creating more of a movement around his philosophy. Kinnard did not give up. Rather, he saw this as simply another challenge for him to overcome, and this led to massive levels of success for him.
This Just Out!
Kinnard’s work for Just Out! was some of his most influential work for a few reasons. Primarily, this publication, founded in 1983 by Jay Brown and Renee LaChance, was one that, as he described it, was quite trend-setting. Because Kinnard worked there right from the start, he was able to start fresh, without having a pre-existing system to build upon as he did when he worked as Art Director for Willamette Week. However, this would prove to be both a blessing and a curse, as it allowed him to take creative liberties in his design but it also meant he had no foundations to build upon.
Kinnard believed strongly in the work that he performed, fighting discrimination of all types, especially racism and sexism. His work for Just Out! allowed him to perform this on the regular. For the publication, Kinnard designed the logo, as well as created cover art and page layout. He was also behind the decision of adding a spot color to the cover page and throughout the newspaper. This choice was made only after much deliberation as the added colors increased the cost of production. Ultimately this decision was in their favor as the publication would go on to win awards in design from the Gay Press Association for two consecutive years in a row.
These choices also made the publication stand out amidst a myriad of other newspapers. The design of Just Out! was almost allegorical to the content within it. During a time where every newspaper followed a strict grid and was entirely black and white, Just Out! breaks that grid and adds color to its pages, making it a literal queer newspaper.
The 1980s was a period where Kinnard was able to truly come into his own as a cartoonist and designer. In the process of doing so, then, he was able to directly contribute to many of these racial and social movements that were already sweeping the nation at the time. Creativity lies at the heart of Kinnard and his contributions to the world of comics and design. Creativity was a vehicle, through which he was able to digest the world with an African American perspective. He was all too aware of how rare these viewpoints and representations were during this time period. He clearly understood the role that he played in this process and treated it with the appropriate amount of weight. Kinnard was a student of the arts and believed that even the smallest of contributions could lead to a snowball effect of monumental change.
Kinnard experienced a large amount of both professional and personal development throughout his time in Portland during the 1980s. These works that Kinnard put forth were able to break the norm, and contribute directly to society as a result. By doing this, Kinnard was able to accomplish what so many before him could not. •
This Portland Illustrator and Activist Has Been Working for LGBTQ Rights Since... Well, Forever
By Fiona McCann 10/23/2019 Published in Portland Monthly
The Brown Bomber is a sweetly innocent, gay superhero. Diva Flambé Touché? She’s the mysterious, wise lesbian who befriends him. Together, this duo has been saving the world since the 1970s and ’80s—the first of their kind when they busted out back then, into a comics landscape dominated by straight, white superheroes. And they owe their existence to local illustrator, activist, and real-life superhero Rupert Kinnard.
Rupert Kinnard Biography
by Stephen A. Maglott
Rupert Kinnard was born on July 21, 1954. He is a celebrated cartoonist, successful art director, beloved illustrator, popular guest house host, and a respected community builder.
Rupert Earl Kinnard was born in Chicago, Illinois, the only son of Rufus Kinnard, who was a cab driver and groundskeeper, and his mother, Viola Hollins, a homemaker who eventually became a nurse’s aide. He attended Fort Dearborn Elementary School, Morgan Park High School for his freshman and sophomore years, and then enrolled at the Chicago Public High School for Metropolitan Studies. He also attended classes at the Art Institute of Chicago.
"The challenges I faced as a young LGBTQ man growing up had to do with dealing with what it meant to be a young Black male in this society and then, hot on the heels of that struggle, dealing with what it meant to be a gay man. Being a young Black man who lived in an all-Black community was comfortable for me because I knew of nothing else. There was such a lack of visibility of Blacks in the media that it was always a big deal to see yourself represented on TV or film. But bit by bit, I found myself being exposed to the fact that racially, the difference made a difference.”
— Rupert Kinnard