Wisconsin Funnies. Catalog edited by Terry Ann R. Neff. Exhibit co-curated by James P. Danky, J Tyler Friedman, and Denis Kitchen with contributions by Paul Buhle. Museum of Wisconsin Art. 2020, 248pp.
I have nursed a habit, that became a way of life, that became a saving grace. Specifically, for the purposes of this post, I am referring to my own lifelong work in the comics medium. Being a cartoonist really is something very special. It is something so special that all sorts of interested parties want to be part of the magic and that includes all sorts of academic types, galleries and museums. That is all to the good. Comics is still a relatively young medium in some respects so anything that spreads the word can’t be all that bad, right? Comics is an art form, owing so much to countless American contributions and around as far back as there’s been a United States, only now getting the sort of recognition it deserved all along. We can’t, nor should we, include every single shred of work ever made but we have a great bounty of examples to hold up as bona fide works of significance and value. The art show currently on view at MOWA (extended to January 9, 2021) is another step forward. Let’s take a close look at the museum catalog.
It takes a historian’s perspective to look at Wisconsin and explain all the comics activity there as having a lot to do with Chicago. Well, it’s true. A hundred years ago, Chicago was a home for newspaper empires with a high demand for cartoonists. This is made abundantly clear in Paul Buhle’s essay to this catalog. If a young cartoonist wanted to make it big, a very good place to hone their talent would be in nearby Wisconsin. Keeping to a historian’s long view, we come to understand that comics got baked into Wisconsin bohemian culture. By the 1960s, it was so much a part of the local art scene’s DNA to make you think you were sipping wine and munching on croissants in Paris, where they embraced comics, the Ninth Art, with great fervor as opposed to your average American, especially a corn-fed citizen right in the heart of farms and honest working folk. All sorts of factors simply added up over time. For one thing, never underestimate a cartoonist’s need for peace and quiet. A more methodical pace can lead to a more cerebral and productive life. Wisconsin native Frank O. King, who made the big move to Chicago, showed the way with his deceptively simple comic strip honoring Americana, a comic strip which was also amazingly innovative, Gasoline Alley, which debuted in the Chicago Tribune in 1918. Take a look at the example above and you might see how this highly stylized format would have influenced another master of comics, Chris Ware. Along with King’s trailblazing work, add Sidney Smith (The Gumps), Claire Briggs (Casper Milquetoast), and Carl Anderson (Henry). For an in depth look, read Paul Buhle’s Comics in Wisconsin.
When you consider what gives a certain place its character, you must think about its guiding forces. One such consequential force of nature in Wisconsin is Denis Kitchen. This is the story of an enterprising young cartoonist who bought some farmland in Wisconsin and converted the barn into a comics studio. From here emerged Kitchen Sink Press, the legendary comics publisher. In 1973, Kitchen joined the back-to-the-land movement and converted a barn in Princeton, Wisconsin and all sorts of comics emerged, underground and mainstream alike. Kitchen was in a position to continue to grow as an artist himself as well as publish the work of other artists and help them out when he could.
Michael Newhall, one of the indie cartoonists in the area, rented a space at the Kitchen barn for $50 a month or, given that he was perpetually cash-poor, would pay Kitchen with a work of art each month. While Kitchen would be the first to joke around about whether there truly existed an underground movement or if it was all just a bunch of hype, there was no doubt that numerous like-minded souls gravitated towards each other. For example, Kitchen includes in the MOWA show a portrait of some of the leading cohorts of that era: Denis Kitchen, Don Glassford, Jay Lynch, Jim Mitchell, Wendel Pugh, Bruce Walthers, and Skip Williamson. Of course, that is just one snapshot of some of the creative folk at the time. Other cartoonists that were part of the scene in one way or another included Peter Loft, Mark Morrison, Peter Poplaski, Trina Robbins, John Porcellino, Lynda Barry, and even R. Crumb. Plus many others. Since Denis Kitchen is also an art dealer and collector, he also includes in his collection the work of some of the all-time greats of past eras like Al Capp, Will Eisner, Will Elder, Ernie Bushmiller and Milton Caniff. All these names are part of this amazing show at MOWA.
The catalog for the show does a great job of presenting the subject of comics in both an insightful and irreverent way. One thing all of us art lovers can’t help but address is what is it that we really want to see. What will it be that compels the viewer to seek out the museum in the first place? While this or that movement will come and go, at the end of the day, the actual human being who is investing time and energy to view an art show will have a significant say in what works advance and, over time, are bestowed with greater legitimacy. It may not always be a work invested in identity. It may not always be a work of raw and simple quality. Or a work of realism.
What it will be, one hopes and expects, is work that best represents the comics medium. That, of course, needs to be carefully considered by those in a position to keep the ball rolling. That said, by presenting as wide a variety of thoughtfully selected work, MOWA does a great service to comics. Now, getting back to the catalog, if you want not only a taste of some of the best comics from the last fifty years, but also a fascinating look at the counterculture over the years, then this is the book for you. For an exploration of a particularly notable zeitgeist, running from the late 1960s to early 1970s, turn to a wonderful profile in the catalong of Denis Kitchen by James P. Danky. If there ever really was an underground comix scene, Denis Kitchen would certainly know.
Danky follows the history of American underground newspapers, beginning in 1964, with a parallel narrative to Kitchen’s own career, starting with his leap into publishing in 1969 at the age of 23. Over the years, Kitchen became part of undergound comix history. In 1970, for example, R. Crumb invited Kitchen to publish his next comic, Home Grown Funnies. That title proved to be Kitchen’s all-time best-selling comic book, eventually totaling 160,000 copies. Among the landmark work that Kitchen published was some of the best graphic novel work by Will Eisner, including securing the rights to Eisner’s seminal work, A Contract with God. Kitchen would go on to develop The Bugle, his own contribution to underground newspapers. He would go on to other notable ventures, like his partnering with Stan Lee for Comix Book. The rest, as they say, is history–with much to share. For instance, much of the artwork for this art show comes from the collection of Denis Kitchen.
So, with all the amazing achievements accomplished by cartoonists, why would any serious cartoonist who, by all rights, has created art, ever question whether they have truly created art? Because there are countless people who get in the way for countless reasons. Maybe their mother didn’t love them enough. For example, you have people from various other disciplines who suddenly lurch their way into the comics bandwagon. You have critics and academics who do it, not from sincere interest, but because it can seem like an easier way to gain attention and prestige. This results in more and more blathering from a pretentious echo chamber. No art form deserves this. Then there’s the more straightforward elitist prejudice against an art form from those in the establishment. The best example of this is the ongoing war between fine art painters and the artists who work in the comics medium, part of the larger highbrow vs. lowbrow war. Of course, hip painters are hip to hip comix, but I digress.
And, by the way, if you think for a second that my referring to pseudo-intellectual blathering is just something I’m pulling out of thin air, I have news for you. It goes on all the time. Your typical review at The Comics Journal, for example, has perfected this posturing tone, a mix of hyperbole and odd use of language. And I’m really not sure for what purpose. It seems that many who aspire to something great get caught up in their own web of stilted expression. It brings to mind a scene in one of the comics on view at MOWA. It is an illustration by Jay Lynch for the Chicago Sun-Times Sunday Magazine, 1976. In one corner you see a pudgy middle-aged man wearing a cartoon wig. He is trying to impress a sexy woman in a Playboy bunny outfit. He drones on about his doctoral thesis on Ernie Bushmiller’s comic strip, Nancy. He states: “the basic tenets of Bushmiller’s cosmology are to 20th century man essentially what Manichaeism must have been to your typical Albigensian.” I can see that a work of profound beauty, like Nancy, can inspire someone to overreach with the most curious of prose. But does it help advance the cause of comics? I only drag The Comics Journal into this because I know these folks can take it. In fact, one might argue that the quirky attitude at The Comics Journal can be traced back to the subversive humor of cartoonist and editor Harvey Kurtzman, who is included in the MOWA show.
Getting back to the hi-lo wars, Photography had to run the gauntlet and prove itself a legitimate art form up against Painting. And, today, a lot of painters are intimidated and in awe of photography as well as video. For comics, it seems like there’s still a bit of a problem about making proper room for it at the great Art table. This is a problem that doesn’t have to exist if common sense were allowed to rear its ugly commoner’s head.
That brings us to this show currently on view at MOWA. I sincerely believe that the biggest obstacle to understanding comics in the United States (because I don’t believe this dysfunction really exists elsewhere) is a disingenuous notion that comics need to be on some “separate but equal” plane outside of other art forms; or comics require experts to explain how to properly read and appreciate it. No doubt, thoughtful discourse is welcome but a lot of it comes down to common sense too. Some work meets the highest of standards and some doesn’t even come close and has not earned a place of honor. Some comics are so simple it seems like any child could have made them. And some comics are highly sophisticated and unquestionably demonstrate the work of a master.
At the end of the day, a comic can tell you a lot if you’re willing to simply share some time with it. The MOWA show is an excellent opportunity to spend some quality time with some exceptional comics.
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