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.
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.
2019: Graphic novelist and creativity educator Lynda Barry of Madison is one of this year’s winners of the prestigious MacArthur Foundation fellowship, commonly known as a “genius” grant. (Photo: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, )
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