Hello, Wisconsin!

Posted by on December 16th, 2009 at 8:48 AM

4741Comics in Wisconsin, Paul Buhle; Borderland Books; 116 pages; $21.95; numerous black & white and color illustrations; ISBN 978-0-9815620-3-2.

Paul Buhle’s latest project explores the comics history of Wisconsin. By its very nature the book raises tricky questions about comics, cultural memory and geography. Just where does the Midwest figure in the development of comics? Is there a distinctively Midwestern cartooning sensibility? Do writers on comics inadvertently treat states like Wisconsin as “flyover states,” the type of places where good cartoonists feel stuck until they can make their way to New York City, the Bay Area, or the Pacific Northwest? Does a kind of thoughtless condescension warp the stories we tell ourselves about the history of comics?

Buhle definitely means for his book to serve as a counterweight to the hegemonic aspirations of the two coasts. Wisconsin, he says, has “unique advantages,” most notably its “traditions of free expression” along with an unusually long-lived and deeply rooted counterculture. While he avoids making any sort of “giant claim” on behalf of cartooning in Wisconsin, his narrative nevertheless raises the question of whether the contribution of artists, writers, and editors from places like Madison, Milwaukee, Kenosha, and Racine has been slighted in favor of San Francisco and the five boroughs. “The Wisconsin role in the transformation of comic art during the 1970s-1980s may be idiosyncratic and tied to personal details,” Buhle admits, “but perhaps not. Madison, like Austin, Texas was itself a metaphor for the period, with all of the cultural energies intact.”

This is not the first time Paul Buhle has stuck his writerly neck out on behalf of Wisconsin. His edited collection History and the New Left: Madison, Wisconsin, 1950-1970 (1991) similarly attempted to rethink cultural activism from the standpoint of Wisconsin’s handsome state capital rather than Telegraph Avenue or Morningside Heights. This time he’s moved from grad students and professional historians to editorial cartoonists, underground comics artists, and superhero storytellers. But both books unapologetically invoke the spirit of local civic pride. Comics in Wisconsin will be available in bookshops in one proud corner of the country long after better known books on comics have gone out of print.

For Buhle, there are two eras during which Wisconsin cartoonists left their mark on the medium. The first was “the golden years of American journalism,” i.e., the first two decades of the twentieth century, while the second was the long sixties, i.e., the turbulent period from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s. Art Young, Clare Briggs, Sidney Smith, and Carl Anderson are some of the better-known newspaper cartoonists who grew up and/or worked out of Wisconsin in the early part of the century. Moreover, the marvelous Frank King was “a real homegrown Badger and an extraordinary talent,” notes Buhle. King was “inevitably drawing on his own Wisconsin childhood memories, and here is where we may find Tomah [the small town where King was raised] and the surrounding Kickapoo Valley set in comic art form. Outside Gasoline Alley the garage, the actual street looks like Tomah’s Main Street…Gasoline Alley might be called the first soap opera, ahead even of network radio.”

Buhle is rather less impressed with the state of cartooning in Wisconsin in the mid-century period – he quickly passes over forgotten comic strip creators like Gerald Gregg, Erwin Hess, and Jack Crowe – and is in a bit of a rush to get to the glory days of the counterculture. Some of the most interesting work of the sixties, Buhle suggests, appeared in such Madisonian outlets as Connections, Radical Amerika Comiks, Mom’s Homemade Comics, and the Madison-Milwaukee Bugle-American. Nick Thorkelson, Sharon Rudahl, Mike Konopacki, and the circle around Dennis Kitchen’s Kitchen Sink Press all helped keep the hippie flame alive. While Capital City Comics played an axial role as an underground-friendly retailer, Capital City Distribution put out a few interesting titles, including Badger and Nexus (as Buhle notes, Mike Baron and Steve Rude are both Wisconsin natives).

As the narrative moves closer to the present, the text pretty much gives way to an onslaught of images. Lynda Barry, James Sturm, Bill Griffith, Gary Dumm, and John Kovalic are just a few of the luminaries whose work is referenced and reproduced in the final section. Buhle never quite tells us what connects these artists, apart from the vicissitudes of bio-geographical overlap, but he does point out that, “comic art had to come from somewhere besides New York and the Bay Area, and Wisconsin has contributed more its share.”

As it happens, I reviewed Paul Buhle’s edited book The Beats in an earlier post for this blog (see http://www.tcj.com/?p=600). A former professor of American studies at Brown University, Buhle is a cultural phenomenon whose output often centers on comics, popular culture, labor movements, and/or the American left. His work is well known among political activists and leftist historians, but his comics-related publications are rarely reviewed in the comics press. This is probably not the last time I will find myself cranking out a review of a Buhle title for the Journal.

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