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'Comics For Change' Tackles Large Oregon Issues In Mini-Comics

Paul Knauls, known as the “unofficial mayor of Northeast Portland,” is one of the 10 subjects of Comics For Change: Illustrated Stories From Oregon’s Front Lines, a new series of mini-comics from the Portland-based nonprofit Know Your City. The organization brought together a group of writers and artists to create profiles of activists working on a diverse range of causes from homelessness to LGBT rights.

At 82, Knauls has been a business owner in the area for 50 years. He says the accomplishment he’s most proud of is the work he did to raise money for a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. in front of the Oregon Convention Center.

“That was a major project to get all these people involved and it’s still surprising how many people don’t even know the statue is there,” Knauls said.

Comics for Change, vol. 7: Paul Knauls

Comics for Change, vol. 7: Paul Knauls

John Rosman/OPB

To create Comics For Change, the writers and artists worked together, conducting interviews with each of the subjects and looking at old photographs to help shape the visual narrative.

The writer who worked on Knauls’ comic, Douglas Wolk, explained on Think Out Loud how the medium of comics helps express complicated issues like the gentrification of Northeast Portland.

“Khris Soden [the illustrator] just drew the same block, how the corner of Williams and Russell changed between 1968 and 2013,” said Wolk. “That communicates how huge that change has been really effectively. Maybe more effectively than you could do if you just put it in writing.”

From Comics For Change, Paul Knauls. Illustration by Khris Soden

From Comics For Change, Paul Knauls. Illustration by Khris Soden

John Rosman/OPB

Knauls said that behind that illustration are decades of change that have shifted the identity of the neighborhood.

“On Williams and Russell in 1970, [Legacy Emanuel Hospital] was doing a plan to expand its campus. My wife Geneva and I had a restaurant, a pool hall and a nightclub. On the corner there was a pharmacy, up the street there was a restaurant, clothing store down the street, restaurant across the street. and in 1970, they tore those buildings down,” said Knauls.

“That’s where everybody used to meet in the community. Now, if you want to meet someone in the community, you’ll either see them at one of the grocery stores or you’ll see them at a funeral. ’Cause you don’t see anyone in the neighborhood that you have seen for the last 30, 40, 50 years. So that’s a big downer because those are the people, your clientele, they are the people you know. And you look around and you don’t see anyone like you.”

Wolk explained the central question is how to tell the entire narrative of a neighborhood through the experience of one of its most well-known residents.

“One story is a microcosm of the bigger story,” said Wolk. “That’s always a really good way to get into a broader, more complicated, more political issue — figure out a specific viewpoint and go from there.”

For artist Natalie Sept, the project offered an opportunity to tell stories in a universal format. “Comics are accessible. They’re picture-based, and I think everybody can relate to them in some way.”

Comics for Change, Genny Nelson. Illustration by Natalie Sept

Comics for Change, Genny Nelson. Illustration by Natalie Sept

John Rosman/OPB

Sept was the artist for volume 4, focusing on the story of Genny Nelson, co-founder of Sisters of the Road Cafe. Since 1977, the cafe has been an anchor for many of the city’s homeless population. Its safe environment is rooted in an ethos of non-violence and dignity. 

Since its opening, the price of food hasn’t changed, and can be purchased with food stamps or bartered for work. From the comic:

2011-2012 Sisters of the Road served 39,000 meals — almost 3,500 of which were free of charge to families, customers with disabilities and first-timers. Others were bartered … approximately 10,500 hours at the cafe in exchange for meals — and others bought food with their meal tickets.

Nelson helped pass a nationwide standard for accepting food stamps for prepared meals and she won the National Caring Award.

The illustrations in the volume are heavily detailed and depict many of the patrons the cafe serves. “You can really tell a lot of the story through the details of someone’s face,” Sept explained. “I decided to make something really beautiful that honored the people she tried to help.”

Comics for Change, vol. 4: Genny Nelson. Illustration by Christen McCurdy

Comics for Change, vol. 4: Genny Nelson. Illustration by Christen McCurdy

John Rosman/OPB

To listen to Think Out Loud’s full conversation about “Comics for Change,” click on the audio player at the top of the page.

Comics for Change Know Your City