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Notable figures in Northwest comics scene draw up plans for Museum of Cartoon Arts in Portland

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Attendees at the 2019 Emerald City Comic Con browse the booth for Portland’s Dark Horse Comics. (ECCC Photo)

For years, Portland has been a significant hub for American comics, cartoons, and animation. A new project aims to establish a permanent art museum in the city dedicated to celebrating the medium and its history.

The Northwest Museum of Cartoon Arts (NW MOCA) is a non-profit that plans to build a creative space to support the Pacific Northwest’s cartoon art scene, both through bringing up a new generation of artists and by displaying the illustrated history of comics in the region. The scope of art ranges from mainstream graphic novels, such as superhero comics, to political cartoons, zines, and animation.

NW MOCA’s mission statement is to “create a vibrant, living space that is accessible to all and celebrates the diversity, history, influence, and joy of all aspects of cartoon art.”

Board members include the University of Washington’s Dr. José Alaniz and Dr. Charles Johnson; Portland-based writer/cartoonist Mark Russell; travel writer Jen Anderson; and Dr. Rachel R. Miller, managing editor at The Comics Journal.

GeekWire caught up with Dr. Mike Rosen, the president of NW MOCA’s board, to discuss the project’s goals, ambitions, and timeline, as well as Portland’s extensive history as a big town for American comics.

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

GeekWire: How long have you been working on this project?

Dr. Mike Rosen. (Photo courtesy of Mike Rosen / NW MOCA)

Mike Rosen: I started in October ’21. The origin of the project was that, about five years ago, the Oregon Historical Society had an exhibit on the Portland comics scene. Two of the people who had helped curate the exhibit were Anina Bennett and Paul Guinan. A lot of their work [Boilerplate, Heartbreakers] has appeared through Dark Horse.

[Bennett] had a reminiscence pop up on her Facebook page about the exhibit, and somebody said, “Hey, we really need a permanent museum for comics in the Pacific Northwest.”

I just jumped on it. Within two months, we were non-profit. We’ve built a really solid, diverse board, and we’re really chugging away.

On our board, we also have Charles Johnson, who’s the professor emeritus at the University of Washington. He’s a cartoonist, a National Book Award winner and the second black man in history to win a National Book Award. We have José Alaniz, a professor at UW who writes about comics a lot.

We’ve got four comic book store owners on the board, all in the Portland area. Katie Pryde of Books with Pictures just won the Eisner [Spirit of Comics Retailer Award].

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NW MOCA board member Katie Pryde, owner of the Books with Pictures bookstore in Portland, accepts the Walt Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailer Award at the 2022 San Diego Comic Con. (NW MOCA image)

Portland has a long history in the American comic book industry, right?

Let me give you a quick rundown. Will Vinton’s studio started doing stop-motion animation in Portland in 1975. Dark Horse Comics came along in 1986.

We had a really big comics movement in the 1980s and ‘90s: Lynda Barry [The Good Times Are Killing Me]; Matt Groening at the start of his career [The Simpsons, Life in Hell]; Mike and Laura Allred [Madman]; Steve Leiber [Detective Comics]; Bennett; Guinan; Shannon Wheeler [Too Much Coffee Man]; Matt Wagner [Grendel, Mage]; the Pander brothers …

NW MOCA board member Shannon Wheeler created the satirical superhero Too Much Coffee Man in 1991. (NW MOCA image)

Then Fantagraphics came to Seattle in 1989. Oni Press was established in ’97. There’s Helioscope, which is Steve Lieber’s studio of about 20 artists that have a collaborative space.

Laika Studios [Coraline, Kubo and the Two Strings] was established in 2005; essentially, [Nike co-founder] Phil Knight’s son Travis bought Will Vinton’s studio and turned it into Laika.

We had two university comics programs start in the 2010s: the University of Oregon’s comic studies program was established in 2012 and Portland State University’s was in 2015. Then Image Comics came up here [from Berkeley, Calif.] in 2017.

When you look at Portland, just Portland alone, it’s just an epicenter for comics. Then you include the Pacific Northwest, and you’ve got G. Willow Wilson [Ms. Marvel, Poison Ivy], Gail Simone [Birds of Prey, Batgirl], Fantagraphics…

I was looking at your bio on the NW MOCA site. You’re primarily an environmental engineer?

I worked in government as middle management for 30 years. The first 15 years, I worked for the state on toxic site cleanup. For the last 15 years, I managed the city’s watershed division, which was all about natural resource protection.

But through all of that, I’ve been a comics fan. I know Shannon Wheeler very well. When the Deepwater Horizon disaster happened, I brought a group of news people, environmental activists, artists, and students down to the Gulf Coast to bear witness to what had happened down there.

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We produced three things. One was a graphic novel called Oil and Water that Shannon drew and Steve Duin, a famous columnist from the Oregonian, wrote. We also produced a documentary and a school curriculum.

Fantagraphics published Oil and Water, and [Fantagraphics VP] Eric Reynolds is on our advisory committee. I really hope that in the Pacific Northwest exhibit, there can be a wall just for Fantagraphics.

Mike Rosen is credited as editor on the 2011 graphic novel Oil and Water, published through Seattle’s Fantagraphics, about the reactions on the ground to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Fantagraphics image, art by Shannon Wheeler)

You’ve got a fundraiser for NW MOCA coming up?

We’re going to do a Kickstarter in mid-January to mid-February. The goal is to raise $60,000 to pay for a pop-up exhibit that will run from June 1 through September. It’ll be in downtown Portland.

The stretch goal is to get us to $100,000 so we can pay for some of the current costs that we’re incurring, to do some development work, and also to have some matching funds for writing grants.

Our first planned exhibit has two parts to it. One is Pacific Northwest artists: one floor just covering the ‘80s to the present, and the Pacific Northwest presence in the comic and cartoon arts community.

The second part is called Multiculturalism in Comics. We want to cover black, Latinx, Asian, Eastern European, indigenous, and LGBTQA+. That would be on another floor.

That’s why we’re so excited to have someone like Andrew Farago curating for us. He’s been at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco for over 20 years.

One of the things we’re hell-bent on right now to get ready for the Kickstarter is procuring art as premiums. We’ve already gotten art from Joelle Jones [Wonder Girl], the Pander brothers, Shannon Wheeler, Colleen Doran [The Sandman, A Distant Soil]… I was in touch with Bryan Talbot, who’s considered the father of the British graphic novel, and he’s agreed to give us art.

We’re really trying to build a robust Kickstarter campaign. For the next couple of months, I’ll be neck-deep in procurement.

I’m surprised you don’t have people falling over themselves to contribute art.

Well, we’re just getting started. That’s why we’re on the convention circuit. We did a lot of marketing at Emerald City Comic Con, and we’ve got a table at the Rose City Comic Con with Mark Russell in a couple of weeks. Then I’ll be at the New York City Comic Con in early October.

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Your plans for MOCA split the difference between a typical museum and sort of an open creative space.

What we’re emphasizing is literacy and education.

We’ve got a really great asset in Portland: Wacom Tablets is one of the major suppliers of digital art products. It’s headquartered in Japan, but their only other office is in Portland. They’ve done a lot of sponsorships in Portland for comic projects.

Instead of just being a museum where you walk through it, if we have enough space, we can set up a maker space in MOCA with digital tablets, printers, and binders. We can have artists that we invite in to hang out and draw during the day. We could bring classrooms of kids in to do the same thing. They could actually produce their own comics from soup to nuts.

You’re planning to teach the next generation about sequential art, then.

One of our values is to create opportunities for the next generation. We want to have an artist-in-residence program, too.

Do you have a space picked out?

We have a realtor who’s very good, and one space that we’re particularly excited about. We’re hoping to secure a space by the end of September.

But, our realtor said not to fall in love with any single space. We’re looking for 10,000 square feet, not including shop space.

I’d like to point you to one other section of the site. We have a special brand manager.


NW MOCA’s cat mascot. (Photo courtesy of NW MOCA)

If you scroll all the way down …

Is it the cat?

Yes. Milk thee Siamese. We’re really proud we were able to get him on board so early.

The real story is that my daughter, Marcella Rosen, is our graphic designer. She did the website and our logo. Milk is her cat, and we decided we needed a mascot for good luck.

We’ve really got an eclectic bunch. The Northwest is so concentrated with a wealth of comic and cartoon arts talent.

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