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The 'Diva' Comes To Life

This article shared 6797 times since Sat Aug 1, 2009
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Rupert Kinnard was always among my favorite cartoonists. For many years, his Cathartic Comics featuring the Brown Bomber and Diva Touché Flambé ran in Outlines and other LGBT media around the country, and he published a collection of the characters in book form. A former Chicagoan, Kinnard broke ground as an openly gay African-American cartoonist and graphic designer.

Kinnard, who became a paraplegic as a result of a car accident several years ago, is now working on a new book, The LifeCapsule, with amazing illustrations and autobiographical material that make me love him even more. Now living in Portland, Ore., with his partner of many years, Kinnard runs a guest house and is hoping to help others illustrate their lives. If you are familiar with lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel ( Dykes to Watch Out For ) and her award-winning autobiographical graphic novel Fun Home, you get the idea of what Kinnard is planning, on an even larger scale.

It was a pleasure to reconnect with Kinnard during a recent Chicago visit, and I followed up with him for this e-mail interview.

Tracy Baim: Can you tell us about your upbringing in Chicago, where you grew up and went to school?

Rupert Kinnard: I was born in Chicago in 1954 into a family that eventually consisted of myself, my mother, my father and four sisters. I was very much aware that it was good to have a father who was around and provided for his family but my main relationship with him was with him as a disciplinarian. My mother and my four sisters were very close and I was more than content to be by myself and to myself. I was a very creative young man and loved being in my own space. I was very fortunate to never give in to wanting to fit in ... with other peers. I enjoyed impressing adults with my artistic abilities but I never set out to impress them.

I have some memories of living on the West Side near Lawndale and Roosevelt for a while when I was fairly young. After that my family moved into the projects that used to be near Roosevelt and Racine. When my mother and father moved us there, the buildings were brand new and living on the top floor of a 16-story building provided us with an amazing view of the Chicago area. The elementary schools I attended were Herzel School, John M. Smyth and Ft. Dearborn, after we moved to the South Side. I ended up busing to Morgan Park High in 1968. After coming dangerously close to becoming a dropout, I was saved by a series of events that led to my becoming a student at the Chicago Public High School for Metropolitan Studies ( Metro High ) in 1971. Attending Metro was a major "fork-in-the-road" experience for me. If I hadn't been able to attend school there, I can't imagine where I would be today. It was one of the proudest days of my life when I graduated from Metro in '73—the first in my family to graduate from high school.

I eventually lived on my own in Hyde Park for two years and attended the American Academy of Art for one year. After that I eventually became enrolled at Cornell College, in Iowa, in 1976. That was also a great experience for me and I graduated from that school in 1979.

TB: What were some of your early jobs in Chicago?

RK: The first job that I remember was as a paper boy for the Chicago Daily News. After that I worked at a Tastee Freeze on the corner of 87th and Aberdeen on the South Side. My first significant job was as an office clerk at the Chicago Sun-Times in the promotion department for two years.

TB: How did you get involved in doing illustrations and art? What does your art mean to you?

RK: Even before discovering comic books, I knew I could draw. Once I did get into Superman, Batman, Green Lantern and The Flash, I started creating my own heroes. At one point I realized that there weren't any Black superheroes and I was confused as to why the characters I had created were white. Once I realized that, I created a superhero I called Superbad. I considered him to be the Black Captain America. At that time I was very much influenced by Mohammed Ali's personae. I didn't go as far as Ali did in proclaiming that he was "The Greatest!" But he made me embrace the young man that I had become. I didn't as much give in to the attitude of the day—that young Black men were worthless.

While at the Sun-Times, I ended up having my first illustration ( a drawing of Redd Foxx ) published in December of 1974, on the front page of the Arts and Entertainment section of the Sunday edition. After another drawing had been published I found myself chewing at the bit to join the Sun-Times editorial art department but became extremely frustrated when I was told that would never happen without am arts degree. That lead me to quitting my great job and enrolling at Cornell College.

Bit by bit, especially after graduating from college and having served as editor and art director of the school's yearbook, I became more and more interested in graphic designing. I am very passionate about the opportunities I have had in the past as art director and designer for progressive publications and grassroots organizations. I love being a part of presenting information in the most visually exciting way possible ... with as much respect for the message as possible. A major part of my sense of worth is based on being creatively productive. It's a curse.

As a cartoonist my art has meant the world to me. I took the job of being a satirist very seriously when I drew my strip called Cathartic Comics. It was a great challenge for me to tackle the news events of the day and find irony and humor in some very serious subjects. I loved being controversial and loved being the voice of folks who saw things the way I saw them. I truly considered it to be a great honor to be published within the pages of the papers that carried the strip.

TB: How did B.B. and the Diva come about? Who are they inspired by?

RK: As the creation of Superbad was inspired by one boxer, Mohammed Ali, The Brown Bomber was inspired by another ... Joe Louis. Louis had been nicknamed "The Brown Bomber" in his heyday and I thought that not only was that a cool name for a superhero, I loved what I knew to be Joe Louis's personality. I wanted everything about my Bomber to be whimsical. I liked the idea that he would be a combination of superhero and "superfairy." Long before Michael Jackson decided to popularize the wearing of one glove, B.B. wore one boxing glove.

I considered it to be great honor when asked to create a weekly political cartoon for Cornell College's newspaper. I incorporated the Bomber in the strip and it was widely read by the community on campus.

It was years later, after I moved to Portland in 1980, that I felt the need to create a buddy for the Bomber. Once I came up with the name Diva Touché Flambé, I had to try and come up with a character who would fit that name. Diva was clearly inspired by all the women in my life that served as my personal divas. At one point I realized it was the combination of B.B. and the Diva that made me aware of the yin and yang aspect of my own personality. I would like to believe that there is a part of who I am that is innocent and questioning, like the Brown Bomber. I also truly feel that at a fairly early age I developed a way of looking at the world in a relatively calm and analytical fashion, like Diva. I instantly took personal pleasure in coming up with ways that B.B. and the Diva could play off one another as opposites. I think of them as two individuals who long for the perspective that the other has of the world.

TB: What role have LGBT comics played in gay media and for the gay community over the past three decades?

RK: LGBT comics join so many other forms of art in an attempt to educate. It has been extremely necessary to make sure that the experiences and the uniqueness of queer folks are represented in film, literature, stage, television and the like. It has been great that there has also been a group of talented LGBT individuals who share their cartooning talents and humor as a way to be a part of sharing various aspects of what it might be like to be queer. It is yet another form of communication that serves as a novel way to expose who we truly are.

TB: Who are some of the writers/illustrators of comics who inspire you?

RK: Initially, the artists who inspired me drew superheroes for Marvel and DC Comics. Carmine Infantino, Gil Kane and Curt Swan were the DC artists who drew characters like The Flash, Batman, Green Lantern and Superman. The Marvel artists that I admired were John Buscema, Neal Adams and the great Jack Kirby. Then I fell in love with the seemingly simple artistry of Charles Schulz and his Peanuts strip. In terms of "commercial art" I grew to love the illustrations of Jack Davis. Upon discovering more underground comics I developed a mad admiration for writers/cartoonists Lynda Barry, Alison Bechdel and Howard Cruse. I also have a great admiration for Garry Trudeau of Doonesbury fame and how he changed the scope of political cartoons on daily comic strip pages all over the country.

TB: How did you get involved in gay media in Portland, and in what capacity?

RK: Once I moved to Portland I was lucky enough to have the Brown Bomber comic strip published in the gay newspaper of the day, the NW Fountain, in 1980. After that paper folded, another paper, The Cascade Voice entered the scene and I did graphics work for them. There I met staff members Renee LaChance and Jay Brown. After a while we all became frustrated with the paper's focus being on the white gay male community. At first I was humored when Renee and Jay approached me with their idea of starting a new Portland lesbian and gay publication. The Cascade Voice was the big kid on the block, so it seemed implausible that a new paper could challenge them. I had been gaining more and more experience as an art director for another local alternative newspaper, so I told Renee and Jay when they had a publication date, let me know. I was surprised months later, when they did inform me that they were ready to roll. I designed the initial layout of the paper and the debut issue of Just Out hit the stands October of 1983. Looking back on those early issues I am horrified how crude the design was but in the paper's first year we went on to receive the Lesbian and Gay Press award for best design. Years later, after I had left Portland and moved to the Bay Area, I ended up working for the San Francisco Sentinel and we also received a Lesbian and Gay Press award for best design.

TB: Can you tell us about the accident that left you disabled? How has that impacted your life?

RK: One of the most painful things about my accident was that it happened during a trip to Mississippi, for my grandmother's funeral. My mother's mother was laid to rest on April 6, 1996. The next day was Easter Sunday, April 7. I was traveling along a two-lane winding road, when I saw another car approaching the opposite direction, swerving into my lane. I sharply jerked my steering wheel to right and ended up running off the road into a ditch. It all seemed like a freak accident because there was absolutely no damage to the car and there didn't seem to be anything wrong with me ... except when I touched my leg, my hand could feel my leg but my leg didn't feel my hand. After that there was a whirlwind of activity that led to me being transported from a small hospital in Clarksdale, Miss., to the Elvis Presley Trauma unit at a hospital in Memphis, Tenn. That was a horrible experience but made better when my partner Scott arrived and calmly told the staff there, "I will need a cot or something. I will be staying with him." In a little more than a week, we were flown, in a private jet, back to Portland, where my community wrapped itself around Scott and I in a way that I could not ever have imagined. In the end I was much more affected by the love and support that we received from family and friends, than I was by the extreme change of life as a paraplegic.

The main way being "less-abled" has impacted my life is that it has become the reason I have increased my will power to continue a certain quality of life. I do all I can to make sure that getting around in a wheelchair will not stop me from doing all the things I want to do. At 55 I realize that bit by bit I will start to slow down in all my activities, but I figure I will do as much as I can as long as I can, until I can't do as much.

I had thought that I knew the extent of how difficult life could be as a Black American and as a gay man throughout my life. Those "conditions" still couldn't prepare me for the insensitivity that comes with how people act around folks with disabilities. It is very difficult to deal with the amount of disdain that I often get directed towards me. In the end I think dealing with it makes me a stronger man.

TB: What are your general views of the progress of our LGBT movement since the 1970s? How about on gender and race and class issues, has there been progress?

RK: I could not consider myself to be the eternal optimist if I could not clearly see the progress that has been made in the LGBT movement since the 1970s. The pure degree of visibility that we enjoy now is a constant advantage to us in all of our lives. I love the idea that it is becoming less and less common for straight people to say that they don't know a queer person.

There has been progress but I feel the biggest challenge that we face is the same one we have faced for years. We have got to get a grip on the diversity that lies within our own ranks. Black people being blamed for the failure of the gay marriage initiative in California sucked. During my life I have seen racial groups within the queer communities continually being marginalized. I had to ask the question, "What kind of outreach was being done in those communities? Were people of color being asked to be a part of the organizing?" I also found myself very disgusted with something as trivial as the 2005 Academy Awards could bring about conflicts between folks of color and ( specifically ) gay men. I truly believe that simply because Brokeback Mountain was a milestone film that depicted a gay love story, gay men exhibited unfortunate insensitivity to the film that I thought was a slightly better film, Crash, which was a complex examination of racism.

Even as recently as last year's presidential campaign, I was saddened by the number of lesbians who were so supportive of Hillary Clinton that they couldn't keep their racism in check against the first viable Black candidate. By the same token I was also bothered by the instances of sexism coming from so many directions during the intense race. It is true that within all of these conflicts lie serious issues involving class. That seems to be the last frontier for us to examine and we truly have a long way to go before we tackle that division.

TB: How long have you and your partner been together, and how have you been able to maintain a long-term partnership?

RK: My mother recently praised me for being able to find a great partner, as opposed to my four sisters who have yet to find someone that she would approve of. My mom told me that she thought it was because my sisters would go to places like bars to meet guys. I informed her that I had met Scott in a bar. She then replied, "You know what I mean ... they go to sleazy bars." I laughed and said, "The bar I met Scott in was a very sleazy bar." That was in San Francisco, October of 1990. We have been together for nearly 20 years and no one could be more surprised than myself. It is so clear to me that there is no one secret to a lasting relationship. I hate to admit that the main element of it seems to be luck. I feel that I was lucky to meet Scott at a certain time in my life when I could be clear with him that I am an independent man. Even within the context of a committed relationship, I would still need a great deal of independence. We both had experienced the luxury of a certain degree of therapy that enabled us to know what our behavioral patterns were and it was essential that we could share them with one another. He and I are constantly able to connect with the little boy within and we don't take everything too seriously. We truly love making one another laugh. We don't fall for those profoundly tired clichés like "You complete me," or " I was once half, now I am whole." What I do embrace is that we both feel that we totally support one another. In the words of the great song by The Dells, Stay in My Corner, I am constantly aware that Scott is always there in my corner. I actively work to make sure he knows that I've got his back too. And though he and I are strong ( or steadfastly stubborn ) enough to deal with any rejection we might have received from our families, we are overjoyed and absolutely moved by the total acceptance and love that we have received from our parents.

TB: Tell us about your bed-and-breakfast.

RK: Scott and I are weird kind of "people persons." We can be very social but when we want to be left alone we really want to be left alone. After my accident, I was grateful that he and I owned our own home in northeast Portland. After a while I wanted to be nearer to more shops, movie theaters, eateries and great transportation. Once we decided to move to a more desirable area of the city, we eventually realized that we should think about incorporating a rental property in the place we would consider buying. We eventually did find a place and thought we could convert the attic or the basement into an income-producing rental. We ended up building a separate unit and decided to make it a short-term rental called the Kinley Manor Coach House. It has been a joy to meet and greet folks from as near as our immediate neighborhood and as far away as Australia. Many people mistakenly think of us as a bed-and-breakfast inn. The coach house is a guesthouse, and the closest to come to being a B&B is that we provide the bed and if the guests want to invite us over and make breakfast for us, we would consider it. So ... as "people persons" we enjoy interacting with the guests when they arrive but we love the idea that they get to stay in a separate building that is all theirs while visiting "The City of Roses."

TB: This new book project sounds fascinating—a graphic novel about your experience as a Black gay man who is in a wheelchair. Tell us how this project has developed and where you hope to take it in the future.

RK: The LifeCapsule Project is meant to expand on the concept of the graphic novel. It is more like a graphically designed memoir. It tells the story of what I humbly consider myself to be—the World's Most Well-Adjusted Black, Male, Gay, "Less-Abled," Activist, Artist and Adventurer. It is narrated by The Brown Bomber and Diva Touché Flambé, and incorporates elements of scrapbooking, photo albums, time line, oral history, biography and graphic novel. It is my greatest desire to share with others the challenges and struggles of one who has experienced a number of social phenomenons such as: Black south/north migration, low-income housing, the civil-rights movement, Chicago's "white flight," alternative education, racism, gay identity, liberal-arts education, the alternative press and paraplegia. I want to encourage others to take a like-minded look at their lives and imagine breaking it down in chapters. I hope to inspire folks to examine all the elements that have gone into making them the people they are today, whether it be influential people they know or media figures. I love the concept of "A Life Laid Out" and I hope this book will spark an interest in others to realize just how fortunate, lucky and blessed they truly are.

Contact Kinnard at . The Kinley Manor Coach House Web site is .

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