Wednesday, May 20, 2009

June Artists: Beyond the Strip

Whether the word “comics” brings to mind newspaper cartoons, collectible books or contemporary graphic novels, you’re likely to learn a lot at Underground Classics: The Transformation of Comics into Comix 1963–1990, a new exhibition at the Chazen Museum of Art.

Showcasing original art, printed pages, comic book covers and other work by fifty-seven artists, the exhibition explores the underground comix movement that began in the 1960s in which cartoonists rebelled against mainstream society and mainstream publishing to create a new, uncensored era of comic art.

Recently, James Danky, a co-curator of Underground Classics with Denis Kitchen, answered a few questions about the intriguing exhibition.

How did this exhibition come about?

In the fall of 1977 I organized a conference on the UW campus on book publishing in Wisconsin and Denis Kitchen of Kitchen Sink Press attended it. We introduced ourselves and I have the distinct memory of casually saying how great it would be to see his and the other comix artists’ work in a museum. As we have remarked to each other since, you need to be careful with those casual statements given that was thirty-three years ago!

How did you personally become interested in comics and comix?

I have always read comics. I am sure I began with the funnies in the newspaper back when the offerings were more numerous, though I quickly added reading comic books as well. I would sit on the floor of the supermarket while my mother shopped (this was the 1950s, after all) and would read several comics and then select one to buy for twelve cents. If the title was other than Disney I would hide the book inside Life or Look but markets tended to offer a pretty mild selection of books. In 1967 I discovered comix when a friend lent me his copy of Zap, which blew my mind as the saying goes. From then on my reading was almost exclusively comix, as the titles published by the major firms had lost my interest. Today I read comix and their successors, namely titles published by younger artists including Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, Jason Lutes and Linda Barry. The creativity of their art and the stories they choose to tell make for compelling reading.

What is the difference between comics and comix?

Comics have been an integral part of art since people drew on caves in Europe, if not before. In the twentieth century comics have come to have a more limited definition that frequently depended upon their location within the media. Newspaper strips, whether dramatic or humorous, were aimed at a general, family audience. Likewise, many comic books from producers like Disney or Dell provided content that involved funny animals and the like and could safely, after the mid-1950s, be shared with even younger children. There were many important comics that were none of these things, comics that contained graphic views of war or horror, but the Comics Code movement during the McCarthy era drove them out of business. This left a landscape where comics artists and readers were constrained in their choices and this frustration led to comix. The “x” is there to distinguish the two approaches. Comix offered artists the freedom to use unfettered language, depict graphic sex or recreational drug use, and make use of extreme violence when the story called for it. This entirely new approach to the medium produced works that were completely different than any that had come before and that also reflected the tremendous social changes associated with the 1960s.

Has this topic been studied much in the past? Why is it gaining attention now?

There were perceptive critics and even a historian or two who appreciated the work done by comix artists right away. However, their efforts were fragmented and often little read. Over the last few years there have been some important books, including Pat Rosenkranz’s Rebel Visions, which have put comix into a broader context. Denis and I believe our book, Underground Classics: The Transformation of Comics into Comix, represents the first serious examination of comix as art, but our work relies on the contribution of many others.

Comix have gained a new acceptance over the last few decades and here I could point to a number of indicators but perhaps it is useful to think of Art Spiegelman’s joining the New Yorker in 1992 and later when his wife, Francoise Mouly, became the magazine’s art director. As the premier venue for cartoonists, the changes at the New Yorker have opened its pages to cartoonists whose work would have never appeared before. It is a factor of age, as in those of us who grew up on comix are now of an age to want to see such images, read such stories that publications include them.

How well does the general public understand and appreciate comics and comix? Have there been misconceptions over the years?

Despite the changes noted above, comics and comix remain a demonized form of media. The historical demonization sent forth by Dr. Wertham in Seduction of the Innocent, which produced the Comics Code of the 1950s, established a frame in which stories told using drawings were deemed juvenile and of little value. How many parents declared that reading comics was a waste of time? The result has been to limit the audience of comics in ways that other literary forms are not. Comics and comix can both be extraordinary forms for authors and artists to employ in telling stories. Comix offer the added benefit of being able to tell a story without the usual constraints or responsibilities. When Will Eisner’s A Contract with God appeared in 1978 (published by Denis Kitchen), the world had its first graphic novel. It is hard to underestimate the effects of Eisner’s work and I would note the strong presence of graphic novels and graphic nonfiction in many school reading programs as well as college courses.

What did you learn or what surprised you in working on this show?

I am tempted to say that Denis and I learned how little we knew about how museums worked, but mostly we came to understand how best to tell the story of the fifty-seven artists in the exhibit so that it would make sense to the art museum-attending community. With the help of Russell Panczenko and his staff at the Chazen, I think we have succeeded.

What do you hope people get from seeing this exhibition?

I hope those of a certain age, one closer to my own, enjoy reliving a part of their past, a part that they may not have considered recently or shared with those who came later. For students today, I think the opportunity to see the work done by a generation of artists and to consider how these lines on paper changed everything. The legacy of the sixties is more than rock n’ roll, important as that was.

Underground Classics: The Transformation of Comics into Comix, 1963–1990 runs through July 12 at the Chazen Museum of Art, 800 University Ave. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For more information, call 263.2068 or visit

Additionally, check out Underground Classics, a book written by Danky and Kitchen to accompany the exhibition, as well as a blog dedicated to the show.

Photos are courtesy of the Chazen Museum of Art.

IN THE MAGAZINE: The June issue of Madison Magazine comes out tomorrow. Here’s some of the arts content you’ll find within the pages:
• Local booksellers’ picks for the hottest summer reads.
• Tips on scoring great tickets inexpensively in our special Luxe for Less issue.
• Also in our Luxe for Less cover story is my experience visiting twelve galleries and art museums in a single day.
• A look into what it’s like for two Mercury Players producers to put on the annual Blitz.
• The poem Beauty by Mick Joyce.
• Our monthly Overtones section with picks on the can’t-miss performances, concerts and exhibits taking place in May.

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