Illustrating the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue

Oberlin-ant-slavery-activism-comic-verticalTwo of my biggest heroes when I was a kid were Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. I had posters of them on my wall! I read Douglass’s autobiography a number of times, and I thrilled to the daring exploits of Tubman and the Underground Railroad.

Many of the residents of Oberlin, Ohio, home of my alma mater, Oberlin College, were active in the Underground Railroad in the years before the Civil War. (Ohio borders Kentucky, which, during that period, was a slaveholding state.)

Recently, Oberlin Alumni Magazine commissioned me to illustrate an article about Oberlin’s role in anti-slavery activism. In reading the piece, by J. Brent Morris, and researching the era for my illustrations, I was fascinated to learn that many escaped slaves stayed openly in Oberlin—despite the fugitive slave laws—and became active abolitionists. Here’s a great quote from the article illustrating the fierceness of Oberlinians’ defiance of the “peculiar institution”:

Even though federal marshals and Southern slave catchers seemed a ubiquitous presence in Oberlin, it was nearly impossible to reclaim a free Oberlinite or “fugitive slave” from the town’s protective grasp. . . . Brooklyn abolitionist William Watkins could tell that Oberlin African Americans were “not afraid of the white man.” He noted “a sort of you-touch-me-if-you-dare” attitude about them and would not have been surprised by the security plans of a man like Gus Chambers, who declared that “If any one of those men darkens my door, he is a dead man.” In his blacksmith shop, Chambers always had a hammer and iron bar at the ready for protection, and most often also had a red-hot poker in the fire. Above his door was a loaded double-barrel shotgun, and beside his bed were razor-sharp knives and a pistol. He would never kill a man, he conceded, but clarified that a “man-stealer”
was not fully human. “The man who tries to take my life,” Chambers declared, “loses his own.”

A number of brave former slaves even journeyed back across state lines into Kentucky to recruit slaves to escape back north with them! In a four-panel comic I did for the piece, I show what one hapless U.S. Marshall based in Oberlin was confronted with when he tried to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law, from being run off with a shotgun to being beaten with a walking stick, to finally being run out of town by a group of Oberlin citizens. Ha!

I was given my choice of what to draw for a full-page illustration, and there were many amazing anecdotes of Oberlin’s place in abolitionism and the Underground Railroad. But the story I ultimately chose was a key moment in the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue. In 1858, an escaped slave named John Price was abducted by Southern slave catchers, who intended to bring him back to Kentucky. A large group of Oberlin residents, including many African-Americans, rushed to the nearby town of Wellington, where the slave catchers had holed up in a hotel for the night. In blatant defiance of the “law,” the Oberlin residents forced their way into the hotel and rescued Price.

My illustration shows the aftermath of the rescue, as the joyous crowd of rescuers carry Price out of the hotel on their shoulders. Photos from the era showed many of the Obies who took part, as well as the Wellington hotel itself, all of which I incorporated as best I could into the illustration. I even portray the slave catchers, cowering up in the attic, peeking out the windows as their “prize” is taken away.

It turned out that the Oberlin-Wellingto Rescue was a key moment in the lead-up to the Civil War. Ohio state officials defended the rescuers, despite their flouting federal law (the Fugitive Slave Law), and even tried to repeal the law at the 1859 Republican convention. (Remember, the Republicans were the “good guys” back then!) The resulting attention kept the issue of slavery very much in the public eye right up until secession and the shots fired at Fort Sumter.

Seeing as how it’s Black History Month, I’m proud to share this story, and my visual representation of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, which has rarely been portrayed.

(Thanks to Emily Crawford, the OAM art director, who was so accommodating to work with, and so supportive all along the way. I also want to draw attention to cartoonist Bentley Boyd‘s Oberlin: Origins and Onward!, a comic book history of Oberlin from 1833 to the present.)

Oberlin-Wellington Rescue

In Honor of the Reopening of Oberlin’s Apollo Theatre, Here is a List of Movies I Saw at the Apollo (in Roughly the Order I Saw Them)

St. Elmo’s FirePrizzi’s HonorKiss of the Spider WomanSilveradoBack to the FutureTeen WolfRocky IVThe Color PurpleOut of AfricaWildcatsBack to SchoolAbout Last NightAliensCrocodile DundeeThe Color of MoneyChildren of a Lesser GodPeggy Sue Got MarriedJumpin’ Jack FlashHoosiersStar Trek IV: The Voyage HomeThree AmigosLittle Shop of HorrorsLethal WeaponPlanes Trains and AutomobilesThrow Momma From the TrainEddie Murphy: RawBroadcast NewsMoonstruckGood Morning, VietnamPink Floyd—The WallBeetlejuiceBiloxi BluesComing to AmericaBull DurhamA Fish Called WandaDie HardMoon Over ParadorThe AccusedTequila SunriseMississippi BurningTwinsThe Accidental TouristRain ManBill & Ted’s Excellent AdventureField of DreamsMajor League

Zoe Zolbrod’s CURRENCY

My ol’ pal Zoe Zolbrod has a novel out, Currency, from OV Press, and she’ll be in NYC next week to read from it!

I was thrilled to be able to blurb the book, and this is what I wrote:


"Currency
is a dance and duel, a literary thriller with a serpentine twist. With extraordinary imagination, Zolbrod evokes both partners of a star-crossed couple: Piv, a small-time Thai hustler, and, Robin, a questing American backpacker. Based in the seedy rooms of Bangkok’s Star Hotel, the action in Currency ranges from the tranquil mountains of Pai to the traveler haven of Khao San Road, from the heart of Singapore to the scrubby outskirts of the Philippines’ Cebu City. Along the way, the reader confronts walls of every sort — international and cross-cultural barriers, and obstacles to trust, and, ultimately, love."

Zoe will be at Piano’s (158 Ludlow Street, Manhattan, Upstairs Lounge) on Wednesday, May 19, starting at 7pm, where she’ll be one of four readers. A band will be part of the fun. And then on Sunday, May 23, starting at 5pm, Zoe will be reading at Word Brooklyn (126 Franklin Street, Brooklyn), also appearing with some other authors. Try to make it to one of the two events and support Zoe and her thrilling debut novel.

Zoe Zolbrod's Currency

Oberlin Then and Now: 1989–2009

My visit to Oberlin earlier this month was the first time I had been back to the campus since late 2000, and the first extended stay since my ten-year reunion back in 1998. As with all things, much had changed in the school and surrounding town, though at heart the Oberlin experience remains the same: happily, it’s still a tiny, politically progressive, hippie-oriented enclave in a bucolic northern Ohio setting.

The most striking difference between then and now is how much the town of Oberlin has evolved to cater to the college. When I was a student there in the late 1980s, the only places to eat in town were the Campus Diner, Lorenzo’s (a divey pizza & beer joint), the Tap House (which specialized in greasy bar food and cheap pitchers), the Oberlin Inn (which was too pricey for most students’ budgets), and Rax (a local roast beef chain). Right near the end of my time, a Subway franchise opened on Main Street, but that hardly counts.

Other places in town were Gibson’s Food Market & Grocery, a thrift store, a record store, the Co-op Bookstore, the Apollo Theatre, the Ben Franklin five-and-dime, a pharmacy, a couple of banks, a hardware store, a bike store, a copy shop, and an Army-Navy store. Of all those, only Gibson’s, the thrift store, and the record store could’ve been said to focus on student business; for the most part the “city” of Oberlin (pop. c. 10,000) seemed very resolutely an entity of its own, geared toward the local, non-student populace. Nonetheless, I never felt a lack: I was happy to scarf down a Mr. Fred or an Obie-burger at the Campus Diner; a thick-crusted, cheesy pizza at Lorenzo’s; or a chicken sandwich at Rax. And most of my life revolved around the campus itself.

Now there are all sorts of cafes and restaurants whose sole purpose is to cater to students: hippie diners, Asian fusion restaurants, upscale yuppie cuisine, a burrito joint, an ice cream shop, a Chinese eaterie, the list goes on. And Gibson’s has gotten truly baroque in its accommodation to the student munchies crowd: their main features seem to be chocolate-covered bacon and orange peels, and racks and racks of booze .(Up until the early 1990s, Oberlin was a dry town, with only beer allowed to be sold — except at the Oberlin Inn, which had some sort of special dispensation to sell hard liquor.)

And then there are the other places so foreign to my Oberlin experience: New Age trinket stores, yoga studios, hair salons, and even a comics store (albeit sparsely stocked and darkly lit). The strangest thing, though, is the absence of the Campus Diner. I always thought of that place as the center of Oberlin, the one place in town where college and town really mixed. It’s just weird to me that that place is gone. The absence of Campus, along with the Tap House and Rax being gone really makes me wonder how welcome Oberlin’s “townies” now feel in their own community. My guess, however, is that economic realities set the tone for these changes, and that the old establishments just couldn’t afford to stay in business. And it’s nice to know that a number of the new establishments are owned and operated by ex-Obies (who apparently just couldn’t bear to leave town after graduation). But I had been really looking forward a Mr. Fred! Grrr…

The Co-op Bookstore is gone too, a victim of over-building, replaced by a Barnes & Noble franchise. There’s also a used bookstore which shares space with the Ben Franklin. And the aforementioned comics store, which seems to be wasting its potential (though they were kind enough to supply books for my signing Saturday afternoon). I liked the selection of comics they had on hand — mostly alternative fare and Vertigo books — but it seemed like there was only one copy of each title on hand, and most of them were sealed in plastic (I guess to prevent browsing). The effect was less than welcoming. In addition, the store’s window displays were entirely bare, except for some faded posters of long-completed Marvel and DC “event” comics. Not even a couple of current alt-comix enticements, like, say, the recently published nonfiction graphic novel of a returning alum (hint, hint).

I was so happy to see the Apollo Theatre functioning, still showing its weekly quota of scratched first-run movies. Erik Inglis told me the college had recently bought the floundering theatre, and had plans to keep it going while also integrating the school’s film program into the upstairs offices. (The newest Oberlin Alumni Magazine has a feature about the whole affair.) Some of my best movie-going experiences took place at the Apollo: whether the movies were enduring classics or 80s drek, I’ll never forget seeing films like Aliens, Die Hard, Back to the Future Part II, Rocky IV, The Color Purple, The Wall, Eddie Murphy: Raw, Wildcats, or The Accused at the Apollo.

Changes on the Oberlin campus itself seemed mostly for the good. I really dug the way they’ve re-imagined the first floor of Mudd Library, with an array of free computers, a new books area, and a café. I enjoyed a quick visit to the old computer center, which now features a computer supply store, and an entrance decorated with a display of vintage 1980s and ‘90s computers — the very ones I used to spend so much time on during my student days. Otherwise, it was comforting to sit in one of Mudd’s enduring “womb chairs” and just to stroll through the library’s stacks, remembering that books are still integral to the college experience, and that to really learn and understand a topic you still need to immerse yourself in a book. Wikipedia is not the answer to all of life’s questions!

It was also fun to wander through Wilder, past the mailroom, the Rath, and the ‘Sco. I even picked up a copy of the Oberlin Review, still publishing — on paper, no less. It was both comforting and a little disappointing to see how little the Review had changed, however: still dry as dust and self-serious. (Though I did enjoy reading the “Review Security Notebook,” always one of my favorite features back during my student days.)

The new buildings on campus were all fine — I like the way the new science center wraps around the old one — but one of the best moments of our visit was the gorgeous fall afternoon when Sari, Phoebe, and I strolled around the whole campus, admiring some of the classic buildings: Peters Hall, Talcott, Keep, the art museum, and even dorms like Burton. On the other hand, Dascomb is still a pit. I took Phoebe on a tour down my old hallway (I lived in the same room in Dascomb my first two years at Oberlin) and passed my old room. It still smells the same — like feet! Phoebe seemed trepidatious. I was too. Maybe it’s time to demolish the place? (I think South’s time is over as well.)

The whole experience, combined with my “official” visit as a returning alum, was a pulsating mix of old and new, where I often felt myself caught between two temporal realities, past and present. But as long as the painted rocks remain in Tappan Square, Oberlin will always be home to me.

“Your Alma Mater is Proud of You!”

That was the subject line of the email I got from Erik Inglis, Oberlin professor of medieval art and a fellow Oberlin art history grad from the class of ’89. He had seen the August New York Times piece on A.D., and dropped me a congratulatory email. One thing quickly led to another and soon enough I had been officially invited back to Oberlin to present A.D. to the school. The fact that Kwame, one of A.D.’s characters, is also a student at Oberlin, and was willing to take part in the presentation, added to the allure.

We settled on this past weekend, November 6–8, Parents’ Weekend 2009. Since Sari is an Oberlin grad too, it seemed appropriate for us to go as a family — Phoebe too! So last Friday we all jumped on a commuter flight to Cleveland for a fun-filled three days back in the corn fields of Ohio.

The “official” part of the trip went really well. Erik kindly picked us up at the airport and drove us into town and to our room at the Oberlin Inn. He had to leave to teach a class — likely excuse! — but we sauntered over to the new (to me) crunchy Black River Café to meet Danielle Young, the Alumni Association executive director, and her protégé Liz Weinstein. We had a pleasant lunch, and were encouraged to reminisce about old times for a recorded interview. Danielle & Liz also presented us with an official Oberlin alumni mug and some other assorted goodies.

With all the Parents Weekend events going on, I was a bit nervous about how well-attended Saturday’s 3pm presentation would go, but I was elated by the turnout. At least 75 people — parents, students, and even some faculty — turned out for the event, in the Hallock Auditorium of the new(ish) Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies. (A little shout-out to my buddy Mark “Stinky” Rusitzky, who worked as an architect on the building and served as the liaison during its construction. Mark, a Connecticut College graduate, has spent more time in Oberlin than I have in the last decade!)

After my slideshow, I sat down with Kwame and African-American Studies chair Caroline Jackson-Smith to talk about the project, Kwame’s involvement, and to take questions from the audience. The crowd seemed really engaged, and there were some great questions and comments. Professor Jackson-Smith was terrific, with a real respect for the comics form even though it was one of her first experiences with it. And Kwame was amazing, closing the event with a wonderful, eloquent summation of where New Orleans is now, and how he plans to fit in there once he finishes his academic career. I was so proud of him, and also in awe of his poise and strength of character. Once again, I was reminded what an amazing group of human beings I’ve been lucky enough to get to know though this project.

After the event, Kwame & I sat down in the lobby to sign copies of A.D., which people had quickly bought up all the copies provided for by Infinite Monkey (the new comics retailer in town). It was an odd experience sitting there signing copies for Oberlin students and parents, feeling somehow caught in between those two realities. I know one end of that experience — maybe someday I’ll know the other. I must admit I felt a certain pride, sitting there as a returning alumni, actually invited back by the institutional powers-that-be.

That evening Erik had us over to his E. College house for delicious home-made pizza by his wife Heather. Also there was Anne Trubek, another Oberlin alum of our era (who makes a great apple crumble!) And Phoebe got to marvel at the antics of the three boys (two 10-year-olds and one six-year-old) running rampant in the house. A good time was had by all, and Erik and I refrained from too much teary-eyed reminiscences of those two years we shared at Dascomb.I loved what Erik said about why he loves studying medieval art: "There’s so much we just don’t know! I would hate to teach modern art — we know what Manet had for breakfast every day of his adult life! On the other hand, I would hate to teach ancient art. We don’t know anything! Medieval art is just the right balance of what we know and what we have to use our imagination for."

Sunday was a free day before our 5 pm flight, and Sari, Phoebe & I mostly spent it strolling around the Oberlin campus, visiting the museum, and admiring and kicking the fall leaves. It was comforting to hear the chants of protesters ringing through trees of Tappan Square, though we didn’t get there in time to find out what the protest was actually about before they had moved on. We also got a giant chuckle from the sight of a bedraggled group of Obie kids attempting to stage an earthbound game of Muggle Quidditch on Wilder Bowl, with broomsticks and everything. Ah, Oberlin!

Next time: Oberlin then and now

A.D. presentation

Co-op Convert

This year I finally joined the Park Slope Food Co-op and I’ve decided I actually like working there. For years I had avoided joining, while enjoying the fruits (literally) of Sari’s membership, but I was forced to sign up about six months ago.

I grew up in the lefty/hippie enclave of 1970s Southern California, and my mom even shopped at a co-op out there— called "People’s Food," naturally. Years later, when I went to Oberlin College, I wanted nothing to do with their strong co-op movement. I was turned off by the hairy, crunchy, unshowered ethos of those places, not to mention that I was too preoccupied with other aspects of college life to think about actually working for my food! Flash forward many years later, and those were the same reasons I didn’t join the Park Slope Food Co-op. Now that I’ve been a member for a while, I’ve certainly encountered my share of smug, ideologically driven co-oppers, but the vast majority of members are "regular folks" who enjoy being part of the community. Like Sari & me, they just want a place to buy cheap, fresh food, and don’t mind donating three hours of their time once a month to get it.

I’m in the shipping & receiving squad, and basically I unload trucks, stock shelves, and crush boxes. It brings back fond memories of my Red Cross deployment after Hurricane Katrina.So much of the life of a freelance cartoonist is about "selling yourself," "putting yourself out there," and "expressing your vision" — it’s a relief to let go of my ego, to just be a cog, as it were, working for the "greater good." I’m also grateful that my co-op duties involve physical labor, enabling me to get out from the desk and the drawing table. And the food really is good.

Josh profiled in Oberlin Alumni Magazine

The alumni magazine of my old alma mater (Oberlin College) had the good taste to run a little profile on me in their most recent issue. It discusses my recent work for the 9-11: Comic Relief book, as well as Titans of Finance, and talks a little about upcoming projects. You can read the profile at the OAM website.