Kinnard ’79, Brown Bomber return for Cornell exhibit

Rupert Kinnard ’79, creator of the oldest continuing Black gay and lesbian comic characters in the U.S., will exhibit his work where it all began, at Cornell College. And he’s bringing the Brown Bomber with him.

Rupert Kinnard '79 headshot
Rupert Kinnard ’79

“From Cornell to Cathartica: The History of Cathartic Comics” runs from Jan. 30 through March 11 in the Peter Paul Luce Gallery in McWethy Hall. Kinnard will return to campus for an artist’s reception and gallery talk from 4–6 p.m. Friday, Feb. 11.

While the bulk of the show is cartoons created after Kinnard left Cornell, at its heart are over 15 Brown Bomber comic strips from The Cornellian and cover art from the 1979 Royal Purple yearbook. The exhibit will show the evolution of the strip and its Cornell influence. 

Kinnard began sketching superheroes as a child and eventually questioned why they were all white—including the characters in his imagination. The summer before arriving at Cornell he started sketching the Brown Bomber, a nonviolent superhero based on boxer Joe Louis (nicknamed the Brown Bomber). In 1977 The Cornellian editors learned of Kinnard’s sketchbooks and asked him to provide editorial cartoons.

“I very quickly became aware that the editorial page was a page that lends itself to social commentary,” he said. “That’s what led the Brown Bomber to being a political character. He was observing antics and things going on on the college campus.”

The Brown Bomber, from a 1979 cartoon strip in The Cornellian picturing him coming out of the closet, literally and figuratively.
The Brown Bomber, from a 1979 cartoon strip in The Cornellian picturing him coming out of the closet, literally and figuratively.

The Brown Bomber came out as gay in a trilogy of comic strips shortly before Kinnard graduated.

“I personally thought of that as my subversive parting shot, as the visibility of a queer subculture slowly became more apparent on campus when the national coming out movement was gaining steam,” he said.

More than a parting shot, it was also a beginning for Kinnard, who has made a career of providing commentary on social issues, particularly gay rights and racial justice, through his characters.

After graduating with a degree in art, Kinnard moved to Portland, Oregon, where he still resides. He established the syndicated political comic strip Cathartic Comics, and the Brown Bomber was given an ageless lesbian partner, Diva Touché Flambé (Kinnard has called them “my yin and my yang”). They began appearing in Just Out, a queer Portland newspaper for which Kinnard was the founding art director.

Kinnard didn’t consider himself a pioneer until recognition began flowing to him. 

Cornell to Cathartica exhibit logoIn 1991 his characters were featured in the books “Young, Gay and Proud” and “B.B. and the Diva: A Collection of Cathartic Comics.” In 1996 he received Pride Northwest’s Spirit of Pride award. In 2007, his business, The Rupe Group Graphics, received the Oregon Cascade AIDS Project Community Angel Award, and in 2013 he received the Standing on the Shoulders Lifetime Achievement Award from the World Arts Foundation.

In 2020 Kinnard received the Distinguished Achievement Award, the highest honor given by Cornell College to its alumni.

And in 2021, along with Alison Bechdel (“Fun Home”), Kinnard was one of five pioneering cartoonists featured in the documentary “No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics.” 

He is currently working on a retrospective graphic memoir of his work.

“I get emotional when I think at the end of all this recognition is a show at Cornell College where it all started,” Kinnard said. “It’s very, very emotional to be invited back to Cornell. I really truly feel like I owe a lot to Cornell for the part it played in the career I have.”

The exhibition is made possible through a generous endowment from the Henry Luce Foundation, Inc. It is free and open to the public with gallery hours from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays and 2 to 4 p.m. Sundays.