Formats and preoccupations change, but comics never lose their power to communicate, criticize and entertain.
“Wisconsin Funnies: Fifty Years of Comics,” presented through Nov. 22 by the Museum of Wisconsin Art in two locations, surveys our state’s role in the great hurly-burly of funny words and pictures, especially from underground and alternative points of view. MOWA offers a historical walk-through in its main location, 205 Veterans Ave. in West Bend, with a selection of politically oriented comics in its DTN gallery in Milwaukee’s Saint Kate — The Arts Hotel, 139 E. Kilbourn Ave.
Peter Poplaski’s cover art for the show includes the tagline “For Midwest Intellectuals With Nostalgia Neurosis.” This show will be nostalgic for hippies, freaks and fans of alternative newspapers, including the Bugle-American and the Fox River Patriot.
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Co-curator Denis Kitchen, a co-founder of both of those newspapers, is the central figure in this exhibit. Born in 1946, Kitchen made zines while attending Racine Horlick High School and drew a comic strip for the UWM Post while studying journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. In 1968, he self-published Mom’s Homemade Comics #1, entering the underground comics world.
While Kitchen has drawn hippies and written drug jokes, his clean, accessible style, sense of humor and personal drive would have made him a comic artist in any generation. MOWA’s exhibit includes the droll comics story “Denis Kitchen, Star Reporter, Visits Milwaukee’s Underground!,” in which former Milwaukee Journal comics editor George Lockwood commissions Kitchen to do just that. Kitchen pokes fun at everyone: The Journal, the hippies, the process of journalism and himself.
As the founder of Kitchen Sink Press and an entrepreneur, Kitchen published peers, collaborated with Marvel giant Stan Lee on a short series of comic books and brought back into print collections of Al Capp’s “Li’ Abner” and Ernie Bushmiller’s “Nancy.”
The show’s other giant figure is Madison cartoonist Lynda Barry, who won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant for both her artwork and her creative teaching. She is an associate professor of interdisciplinary creativity at UW-Madison.
Barry broke into the alternative comics world in 1979 with her strip “Ernie Pook’s Comeek,” which ran in publications like the Chicago Reader. Her “Bad Kid Roll Call” (2004) is timeless comic-strip humor, with its portraits of little thugs and thugettes, like Gwen Green, who “kicks innocent people because of no reason”; Carla Mosey, “wants to steal cigs from your Mom or she will hit you”; and Sig Nelson, “pyro.” Every schoolyard has a Sig Nelson.
Barry also exemplifies the rise of the graphic novel as an art form, with works such as her “One! Hundred! Demons!” (2002), a contemporary riff on a 16th-century Zen work. Comics artists turned to the longer form both to do more ambitious work and because newspapers were shrinking in space, resources and reach.
Some 25 artists are included in the show, including such big names as Will Eisner (“The Spirit,” “A Contract With God”) and Art Spiegelman (“Maus”), represented by a cover illustration he made for Kitchen’s Snarf comic book. While many artists in the show are white, MOWA includes welcome pages from “African-American Classics” and “Native American Classics,” two collections published by Tom Pomplun’s Graphic Classics of Mount Horeb.
Comics continue to be a tool for political activism and a means to question authority, a tradition represented by Susan Simensky Bietila, whose targets have included shackled births in hospitals, Wisconsin’s deal with Foxconn and “Return of the Cossacks,” in which Bietila links President Trump’s coziness with Vladimir Putin to her family history of coming to America to escape persecution in eastern Europe.
Social distancing makes looking at “Wisconsin Funnies” easier and more comfortable for a near-sighted person like me. I could take the time I needed to eyeball the art and read the lettering without impatient people crowding me. If you bring your phone, you can use its camera app to scan QR codes next to some works and access short YouTube talks about the works by Kitchen and co-curator Jim Danky.
“Wisconsin Funnies: Fifty Years of Comics” was curated by Kitchen, Danky and J. Tyler Friedman, with contributions by Paul Buhle. It continues through Nov. 22. Visit wisconsinart.org for more information.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: ‘Wisconsin Funnies’ highlights comics artists from the Badger State, including Denis Kitchen and Lynda Barry